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Vast Diversity Wasteland

July 25, 1999

Television is America's most powerful teacher. Omnipresent, TV shapes a collective view of the world. The pervasive medium has created a shared history, providing a cultural touchstone linking generations of viewers, who, though they may have little else in common, watched the same shows, hummed the same theme songs. Today, while fragmented by cable and programming that has resegregated viewers based on race, ethnicity and age, television is still omnipresent and can shape a collective view of what is and what should be. Those who tune in this fall to the new shows premiering on the big four networks may ask: What's wrong with this picture?

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox plan to debut 26 new comedies and dramas featuring white actors, and only white actors, in leading roles. This refusal to integrate even among the regulars in the new prime-time offerings, as reported in The Times' series: "TV's Diversity Dilemma" represents a huge step backward.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission found in its report "Window Dressing on the Set,"--written 22 years ago--that minorities and women, particularly minority women, continued to be underrepresented in dramatic programs and stereotyped "by the networks in their pursuit of higher ratings and profits." The report also found that white males dominated the decision-making process in television. In 1999, it remains ever thus.

This whitewashed lineup, first reported in May by Times staff writer Greg Braxton, could prove shortsighted in the long-term race for profits. Whites-only casting does not realistically reflect the nation's audience, and it runs counter to the real demographics of this country, not the made up "demographics" lusted after by broadcast CEOs.

The bosses, who green-lighted these monochromatic offerings, don't get it. If they believe their strategy will win the loyalties of the young, affluent, white viewers that advertisers covet, they haven't been paying attention to singer Ricky Martin and actors Jimmy Smits, Will Smith and Jackie Chan among others, who sell hugely across racial and ethnic lines.

The bottom line rules the television entertainment industry and all businesses, but white viewers aren't the only people with big money in their pockets. Embracing diversity often translates into larger markets and more sales. Fortune Magazine, for example, reports that "companies that pursue diversity outperform the Standard & Poor's 500. Coincidence?" No way.

Network CEOs are after similarly superior performance in ratings, the numbers that drive advertising rates up and profits higher. Can they get those desired numbers without making diversity a priority? Maybe in the short term, but not for long if these shows turn off the sophisticates and trendsetters in every race and ethnic group who determine what is popular and what sells.

Executives who claim they couldn't find qualified minority actors suitable for the new shows are repeating ancient cop-outs and outdated excuses. Did they look beyond their own inner circle of the well-connected who, as one put it, usually never venture east of La Brea Avenue except to go to award shows?

As press criticisms mount, a scramble has begun to add a token black, Asian or Latino to already completed casts on upcoming series. That is like trying to fix the car after it is off of the assembly line. The lasting fix, of course, is to integrate from the top down and include professionals of color and others who have diverse experiences--urban, rural, working class--among those who decide what is going on the air, and among the executive producers, producers and writers who can influence the process from the inception of a show to broadcast.

Broadcast wars are about to begin. Kweisi Mfume, the chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has already purchased 100 shares of stock in each of the parent companies of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox to gain access to shareholders meetings. Mfume, a former Democratic power in the U.S. House, is also calling for congressional and FCC hearings on network ownership, licensing and programming. And, he is threatening litigation.

Mfume and other advocates point out that the 1934 Federal Communications Act provides that the airwaves belong to the public. Not the networks. Not the advertisers.

When the fall season debuts, the members of that American public--in all its sizes, shapes and colors--should see themselves on network television.

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