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TV diversity needs more than good intentions

October 20, 2003|Karen K. Narasaki

CBS recently issued its first Social Responsibility Report, a 44-page account of what it has done in the last year with regard to diversity initiatives, investments in minority media ownership, public-service announcements and support for and coverage of community events. The network gets applause for trying, but like ABC, NBC and Fox, it is still falling short when it comes to achieving true diversity in prime time.

As our annual survey of the new fall television season reported last week ("Coalition Laments the Invisibility of Asians, Native Americans on TV," by Greg Braxton, Oct. 14), although there has been some progress overall, Asian Americans are still virtually invisible this season. Among the 25 shows that are being unveiled on the four major broadcast networks, almost all the lead actors are white.

For the second consecutive year, CBS received a failing grade for on-screen inclusion of Asian Americans. ABC and Fox fared slightly better, although many of the latter's on-air Asians are from either reality shows or cartoons. Only NBC has two Asian Americans in regular roles in its new fall scripted programs.

After four years of working with the networks to open up opportunities for minorities, I have some observations about persistent barriers in the industry.

First, there appears to be an unacknowledged belief that white audiences will generally watch only programs starring a white lead. That mind-set continues to drive programming. Minority actors and writers are still relegated to themed shows and supporting roles, if they get opportunities at all.

This contradicts the new genre of reality programming taking the nation by storm. With Asian American winners on NBC's summer programs "Fame" and "Last Comic Standing," this popular format has proven that Asian Americans can win the support of mainstream audiences. That Harlemm Lee on the former and Dat Phan on the latter were the people's choice gives network decision-makers a hint of the untapped possibilities.

The second, more entrenched barrier deals with writers and the producers known as show runners. The limited number of minority characters is directly related to the lack of diversity on the writing-producing teams.

The point was graphically made at the Emmy Awards last month by Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" in accepting a trophy for outstanding writing. Flanked by his phalanx of all-white male colleagues, he could not resist a light-hearted salute to diversity. For people of color, however, it's no laughing matter.

When we are not being ignored, Asian Americans characters are mostly stereotypes of martial-arts experts or thickly accented caricatures that marginalize our community and perpetuate prejudices. Fox Movie Channel recognized this problem recently and altered a festival of old Charlie Chan movies -- the Asian American community's "Amos 'n Andy" -- adding panel discussions led by Asian Americans before and after each film. That illustrates what an open mind and receptive ear can do to create inclusion.

There are many people at the major networks who are well-intentioned and sincere in their commitment to diversity. But success requires more than good intentions. It demands a real investment in thoughtful affirmative action. It means challenging powerful show runners and investing in programs that help writers and producers go beyond their preconceived notions about minority communities.

Fully integrating network prime time requires people on the inside who have the resources, responsibility and authority to promote diversity on all levels of the network, from the executive suites to back lot casting calls.

Some progress has been made, but we are still far from where we need to be as public policy. That is why we are calling on corporate sponsors to step up and join the effort.

Many of the major advertisers in the prime-time entertainment slots have a strong public commitment to diversity, which is reflected in their own television commercials. They joined with civil rights advocates to underscore the importance of diversity in scores of legal briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the University of Michigan case that was decided this year.

We want corporate America to invest its dollars in shows that project its values. Programming that includes all types of people -- from conception to writing to casting -- is not merely good TV, it is good business.

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Karen K. Narasaki is executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington, D.C., and chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition.

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