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No black-and-white answer for the lack of diversity on television

During Monday's House Judiciary Committee hearing on Comcast's proposed takeover of NBC Universal, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) lamented the lack of TV shows aimed at minority viewers in general and black viewers in particular.

"We don't have any more of that," Waters said, adding, "I really liked `Girlfriends.'" She was referring to the sitcom about four African American women that ran on the now-defunct UPN network for six years. 

GIRLFRIENDS Waters is right. While the casts of most dramas and many sitcoms have grown more diverse over the last decade (this fall, for example, the dual stars of NBC's most anticipated drama, "Undercovers," are black), programs aimed at minority viewers are harder to find on both broadcast and cable television. 

Veteran Producer Suzanne de Passe, a former president of Motown Television, offered up her thoughts on the disparity. Noting that it was not that long ago that the broadcast networks had such shows as "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "The Cosby Show" and "Living Single," she laid the blame on media consolidation.

"I have witnessed what consolidation of content and distribution in entertainment and media has done to significantly slow down and diminish opportunity for minority professionals rather than accelerate and increase it," she said. The networks that used to make shows aimed at blacks "now only offer a minority cast member here and there and a long list of contributions to minority charities under the catch-all word, `diversity,' " she testified.

Do the broadcast networks not want shows aimed specifically at minorities?

When the Fox, UPN and WB networks were in their formative years (and all were part of media leviathans -- News Corp., Viacom and Time Warner, respectively), many of their shows went after African American viewers.

LIVINGSINGLE Then as those networks found success, they gradually eased away from programs designed for those audiences. TBS, which is home to Tyler Perry's sitcoms and a new program produced by Ice Cube based on his hit movie "Are We There Yet," has made some effort to step into the breach.

But TBS has also added Conan O'Brien to late night and bumped George Lopez to a later time slot. That move has some worried that TBS will follow the path of Fox, UPN and the WB to first embrace, then distance itself from minority viewers.

In his testimony at Monday's "field hearing," Will Griffin, head of the video channel Hip Hop on Demand, said Madison Avenue has a misguided perception of the value of minority viewers, citing that as the reason those networks abandoned minority shows once they gained traction with white audiences.

"The root of the problem is this: advertisers' unwillingness to allocate minority marketing budgets in proportion to viewership ratings," Griffin said.

But the lack of diversity in prime-time network television can't just be blamed on consolidation or on benign neglect by advertisers. The growth of cable and a 500-channel universe that tries to offer something for everyone are also part of the problem. There are Oxygen, Lifetime and We for women and BET and TV One aimed at African American viewers.

On the one hand, having niche channels is good, as it allows a diverse public to find shows aimed at individual interests.

On the other, it lets the big networks off the hook when it comes to making shows for people outside the 18-49 upper-income demographics they traditionally target. And from a sociological standpoint, if everyone is watching their own channels, the common interests and common ground that we should all embrace gets lost.

As Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said at the same hearing, "cable is doing too much to keep us separate." 

-- Joe Flint

Photos: Top right: UPN's "Girlfriends." Credit: Matthew Jordan Smith. Bottom right: Fox's "Living Single." Credit: Gregory Schwartz.

For the record: An earlier version of this post said the stars of NBC's "Undercovers" are African-American. Actually, neither are American. Boris Kodjoe was born in Austria and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is from England.

 
Comments () | Archives (77)

This article is full of it. Just watch any episode of 80s TV and you'll see how many fewer people with blue eyes make it on TV today. If anything, Black women are overrepresented as a portion of the general population. Asians are largely underrepresented as are probably Latin Americans. If Waters wants to talk numbers she is only going to shoot herself in the foot, but that's nothing new.

Why should there be any exclusively black shows at all? There certainly aren't any exclusively white shows, and blacks are always way overly-represented on shows, way over their 12% of the population. Can you imagine the uproar from Jesse Jackson and Oprey if someone tried to put on an exclusively white show?

There are minorities other than African-Americans, especially in Los Angeles. It would be nice, when speaking of diversity, they were also acknowledged and included. Just sayin.

This is a such tired lament. If anything, African-Americans are over-represented in entertainment (music, sports, TV, movies, etc.). How about Latinos and Asians? Now, THEY are truly underrepresented. But what's the problem with that?

If there is one culprit behind lack of shows "targeting" minorities, it is that most Americans gravitate toward mainstream, assimilated culture. Crime procedurals, medical/legal shows, reality shows... these are not inherently "white".

How about focus on ANY kind of quality, substantive programming. Cuz last time I checked, almost everything on TV was crap... regardless of who got targeted.

If Maxine Waters said it, I am against it.

Minorities are indeed grossly underrepresented on television along with People over thirty five, people with more than 3 percent body fat, and people who are happily married. There are many, many roles that could have gone to Asian, Latino, Persian, Arab, Asian Indian or black actors but casting directors never considered them. When we do see a minority on television they stand out because they are invariably one of two in the cast, the other being the first's love interest. How disgraceful that we have not yet moved beyond tokenism.

I agree that aiming shows specifically at minority audiences is not the solution to this problem. Making mainstream tv more accurately reflect reality is the goal. Shows for minorities is, essentially, separate but equal redux. The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and The Cosby Show were not programs for the black audience. They were simply great shows that appealed to a wide spectrum of viewers. Recreating that phenomenon is a worthy but very unlikely goal as creating a hit show is an extremely difficult feat all on it's own.

The practice of writing "black" characters, "Asian" characters or "Latino" characters, etc. must end. This type of thinking is the root of the lack of minorities on television. I look forward to the day when we can focus on the talents of actors rather than the colours of their skin.

African Americans have a right to complain about the lack of African Americans. Perhaps other minorities can speak up for themselves.

Hey Joe, Who else paid you to write this ridiculous article other than the LA Times?

I don't know what decade the reporter last watched television but, in this present time blacks are very well represented. Stop stirring the pot for the and wake up !

I'm grateful for all the comments.

However, I must admit that I find it amusing that so many here think there is something wrong with me writing about something that was, after all, a topic of conversation at a Congressional hearing about a major media merger.

I try to explain why the TV landscape is the way it is right now. It seems that just by even delving into a topic such as this though is too much for some.

Our tax dollars at work. Unbelievable. A hearing on media consolidation degenerates into this?

I am an African-American. For those people that think that they are under represented on TV, there's a simple solution: boycott. Don't watch the shows, don't buy the products advertised, and don't talk up the shows the next day. Having Congressional hearings about diversity won't help. If the overweight, the over forty-five, the Latinos, Asians, Asian Indians, etc. want the networks to add more diversity to the shows, you're going to have to hit them where it hurts: their bottom lines. I watch three shows: Bones (FOX), NCIS (CBS), and L&O:SVU (NBC). None of these shows are what one would consider diverse. But the writing is top notch, the acting is good, and the characters are people that you like. As far as I'm concerned, if those three things are not there, it won't make a lick of difference whether the shows are diverse or not.

Joe,

It is kind of funny, isn't it, until you realize how ugly it is. People count ten black faces on television for every one they actually see. I think of it this way. If you can count the instances of minorities on TV, there aren't nearly enough.

If you want race centric programming you should be able to obtain it (just like having sports centric programming). That networks ignore African American programming in light of Tyler Perry's success just goes to show what a bubble those running these corporations live in.
But the problem is not just with those in charge, it's also with the sheer amount of channels that exist. They exist because of a form of corporate welfare, that being the bundled pricing sham. I never watch ESPN, yet I'm forced to pay five bucks a month for it (and all it's knock off versions).
We need a-la-carte programming from cable providers to allow us to vote with our dollars. Many of these so called networks would drop away in a few months without the bundled monthly payouts provided by the current system.
The 500 channel universe has divided and alienated the audience (and society). The only winners I can see in this equation are the people who own these networks.

@Joe

First, TV doesn't play half the role that it did when this representation argument might have had some validity. The media landscape is fragmented. That's the new reality.

Second, are you saying we need more Black people on TV to foster Black self-confidence, to educate non-Blacks, or simply to encourage Black people to watch more TV?

Why not lament the fact that there aren't more popular Black novelists or poets?

Why not lament the lack of Black classical music composers and performers?

Why not lament the lack of Black graphic designers?

How about encouraging alternatives to TV, rather than trying to change TV?

So, what else is new. This is an age old problem, and it is not gonna change until minotities are leading these organizations and are involved in more leadership roles in business. A sad state of affairs. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Everybody has to gripe about something, let’s just kill all the white people so this planet can finally be a fair place to raise our loving kids. Because you know all white people are born racist according to Newsweek, and most caring minorities. I know Black people are not haters they just want what’s fair to them, and will step all over anybody who gets in their way by playing the racist card. Good luck with holding all the anger inside, I hope it works out for everybody.

The problem with this "racial identity" bullshit is it consists of the same old racism, just turned 180 degrees on itself. "All black TV" is no less offensive than "no blacks TV".

If they really want to have fair and equal representation, they will have to take a number and wait until we get an Indian sitcom, a Chinese sitcom, a Lebanese sitcom (*snore*)... and THEN they will get their turn.

Or, you know, we could all just grow out of this superficial state of mind, put "diversity" behind as the dim-witted veneer it's always been, and just cast whomever fits the role regardless of skin colour. If I wanted racism to be the driving force in my life, I'd move to Jordan or some other uncivilized part of the world still stuck in the dark ages.

The bigger issue that no one seems to address is the total lack of diversity behind the scenes. Check out a few behind the scenes footage that are added to DVDs for television and film. Pay attention not only to the people they are interviewing, but check out the crew working in the background. You have no idea the TOTAL lack of diversity across the board in production from the PA to the Directors. I have worked on sets that were 98-99 percent lacking of any diversity whatsoever.As an African-American, I believe that television, films and behind the scene to the head of studios should be representative of our great nation. If we are paying for cable;going to the movies; buying CDs, DVDs just like every White American, then we should also be represented in every aspect of entertainment. It is the diversity of the world that these studios rely on for profit and success. When it comes to EEO laws, they definitely do not apply to the entertainment industry. When I visit a studio or a set, I want it to represent the colors of our nation, and until they allow us to work side by side they will never be able to pitch a show or film idea when these individuals lack any diversity in their own personal lives. Have you noticed over the past few years the number of foreign actors that have been placed in lead roles on television? American studios would prefer to hire someone from another country rather than hire an African-American, Asian, or Latino American in these lead roles. (Without a Trace, the Mentalist, Moonlight just to name a few) Someone stated there aren't exclusive white shows, seriously, just turn your television on. Why haven't an Asian, Latino or African American been selected as the bachelor for the television show "The Bachelor"? It also amazes me that White america, especially kids are the only ones that are reported missing on CNN nightly shows and made the major story night after night; sometimes for years! A major boycott for some of these blockbuster releases should be a great start. A message should be sent that these Studios cannot survive without the diversity of their audience. Our dollars are just as powerful, and we would like to also be represented within the entertainment industry. We can write a script, direct a film, or hold executive positions and we can also act and play lead roles. In the end, we truly have the power to make demands.

What are you talking about a lack of TV shows aimed at black viewers? (1) Blacks are not the only minority; (2) there are a TON of TV shows with an all black cast. This is just sensational crap journalism.

Joe, good article. What I don't see is how Watters managed to turn a hearing on Comcast's proposed takeover of NBC into a discussion of the alleged under-representation of people of color on television. I fail to see how these concerns fit into what is essentially a discussion of whether or not the corporate takeover raises antitrust concerns. Frankly, with the number of cable stations available now, and the fact that so many people have cable television now as opposed to back in the 1980's, I think her concerns are overstated. There are entire networks devoted to African American programming, not to mention the number of networks devoted to Latin American programming. It does appear that Asian American programming and programming geared towards ethnic groups other than those three is still lagging far behind.

By the way - on NBC's "Undercovers," only Boris Kodjoe is African American. The actress playing the female lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is British. (Though I suppose she might be playing an African American.)

People should *really* be complaining about the *quality* of television programming nowadays, especially the aforementioned Tyler Perry and Ice Cube productions. Shows like The Fresh Prince, Living Single, and The Cosby Show didn't have to dumb down its content to the lowest common denominator, whereas it often feels like you're watching a 21st-century minstrel show when turning on anything made "for" black Americans in the last five to ten years.

The target demographic of network television is 25-49 and upper middle class, how do you attract them to watch a program. Furthermore, are we to expect that 30% of the characters in any program are going to be minorities? Most of America still lives a rather segregated life. In parts of the country where there aren't a lot of minorities (suburbia) you won't find too many white people with black, hispanic or asian friends.

I am black , but the question the senator should have asked herself is why we Blacks do not create more black TV networks or even partnership Television channel. Apart from the Well known BET which was sold to Viacom I believe we have nothing else. We know a lot of money has been made by many prominent black actors, actress, musician, comedians and entrepreneurs. Why don't they own more media since they create a lot of contents and they are known internationally. Why do they park all their money in banks, buying diamonds rings and gold teeth instead of projecting the culture through their own channels. Only now that Oprah is venturing in creating her OWN channel. The question the senator should have ask Comcast is: If we blacks or any minority create some TV channels would you carry them on your cable system? Then, ask of the same from satellite and fios. If yes great, if no why not. Then she could have worked them and demand in their agreement that they do and that the FCC will monitor they they comply.

African Americans should start by getting a national license to broadcast a free channel over the airwave. Why does Hispanic have univision, telemundo telefutura etc and we have nothing over the airwave. It is our fault not Comcast. Those prominents blacks should start to owning media instead of crying over spill milk.

"This is a such tired lament. If anything, African-Americans are over-represented in entertainment (music, sports, TV, movies, etc.). How about Latinos and Asians? Now, THEY are truly underrepresented. But what's the problem with that?"


Are you kidding?...Do you have cable tv? Almost half the channels are in spanish and another quarter are various asian varieties. Most 'regular' Americans won't be able to watch these programs because of the language barrier YET you claim "underrepresented?"...Please....

 
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