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Coalition Faults Networks Over Lack of Diversity

Television: Multiethnic group criticizes ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, saying they have failed to comply with a 1999 accord. TV executives say progress has been made.

July 18, 2002|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brandishing "report cards" with several sub-par marks, a multiethnic coalition pushing for more minority representation on network television once again blasted the four major broadcast networks Wednesday for what they called a lack of significant progress in honoring commitments to increase diversity in their prime-time lineups.

The networks, however, are striking a more defiant tone than they have since the issue arose three years ago, giving the coalition itself low marks for a lack of cohesion among its leaders as well as what they say is a failure to acknowledge legitimate progress, weakening the effort's credibility.

"That's the conversation that has been going on in the upper ranks of network offices--that this group is losing steam," said one senior network executive, on condition of anonymity. "You look at the raw data from 1999 to today, and there have been significant strides made. But all we have gotten from the coalition is a backhand."

Several network executives said that leaders of the coalition have diminished its impact by concentrating on individual agendas for their respective ethnic advocacy group rather than working together toward a common goal. They also cited the relative low profile of the group's most influential member, NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume, as a major factor behind the coalition's deteriorating clout.

"The coalition is not a unified front," said another TV executive, criticizing the group for failing to recognize the strides that have been made.

Mfume was not present at a news conference Wednesday, at which coalition leaders handed out their annual report card on how well ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were doing in honoring a 1999 agreement to increase diversity. That pledge followed a season in which none of the 26 new shows on the four major stations featured a minority lead.

Although NAACP spokesman John White appeared with other coalition leaders, the civil rights organization did not issue grades with the other groups. White said the NAACP would issue its separate report on television diversity later this month.

Issuing grades were the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the National Latino Media Council and American Indians in Film & Television.

CBS landed at the bottom overall with a D-minus, a drop from the D-plus the network received last year. NBC, which received the highest grade last year with a C, dropped to a D-plus.

ABC, which scored the lowest last season with a D-minus, improved to a C-minus. Fox, which received a C-minus last season, came out on top with a C.

Saying they are now being pushed to take action against CBS, coalition leaders said they are writing letters to eight of the network's top advertisers and the board of its parent company, Viacom.

The NAACP, however, is not signing the letter. Said White: "We would have given CBS a different grade. It probably would be higher. We feel they have made some progress."

The coalition had particularly harsh words for CBS President Leslie Moonves. Said coalition leader Karen Narasaki: "Les Moonves was never that interested in significantly increasing opportunities for Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. Now he appears to have lost interest altogether."

Josie Thomas, CBS' senior vice president in charge of diversity, said she did not understand the coalition's grade, adding that there has been a significant increase in minority casting at CBS and that several minority creative executives had been hired. CBS also scheduled a drama with a predominantly black cast, "City of Angels," though the show was canceled because of low ratings.

"Les Moonves has been out in front of this issue from the very beginning," Thomas said. "This is extremely important to him."

In a statement, CBS said that it has been "in the vanguard in its support for diversity. This biased and distorted attack on the company represents the personal agenda of one segment of the coalition and that of its leader." Spokesmen for the other major networks also maintain that they are making important progress on the diversity front.

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