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

June 11, 2010 |  1:03 pm

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.

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