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Byline: Marla Matzer Daily News Staff Writer

At the 13th annual American Comedy Awards earlier this year, D.L. Hughley, the African-American star of ABC's ``The Hughleys,'' was a presenter along with co-star John Henton. As part of their banter, Hinton asked Hughley: ``Don't we have any snappy repartee?

``Nope,'' Hughley replied.

Hinton: ``Then why are we here?''

Hughley deadpanned, ``If Fox (Network) wants to keep its FCC license, it has to show at least two well-dressed black men not being chased by cops.''

Ouch. A number of black actors and comedians have grumbled that Fox, which built its network on such African-American-centric comedies as ``In Living Color'' and ``Martin,'' has abandoned minorities in favor of aliens and ``reality'' shows.

``When they're starting out, the networks looove black people. Then, after they get successful, they switch over,'' said Tim Reid, popular TV actor and creator of the second-season Showtime series ``Linc's,'' with a slightly sad laugh.

If Fox is showing fewer faces of color, it certainly isn't alone. When the networks announced their fall 1999 season lineups in May, there wasn't a single show - out of more than two dozen new shows on the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) - that featured a leading character who is a minority. This, after repeated public hand-wringing and pledges on the part of network executives to ``do better'' at representing America.

Those promises continue. Asked by the Daily News about the ``whiteness'' of the fall lineup, ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses replied last week that the network ``is aware that our new programming doesn't represent the diversity we want to,'' and is hoping to cast a few minorities into the new shows before the season begins. Meanwhile, ABC moved ``The Hughleys'' from Tuesday to Friday night - a less desirable, lower-rated television viewing night.

Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, says the issue of equitable representation is something unions and viewers have to keep reminding the networks of.

``I don't think (network executives) are unconcerned, but their main concern is ratings. That's their business. ... It's our job to remind them there are markets they're not addressing.'' SAG has put out a number of studies documenting not only the underrepresentation of racial minorities but also of women and seniors in film and television.

Why is it so difficult to get and sustain shows starring minorities on mainstream television? Part of the problem, certainly, is that the behind-screen people making these shows don't represent America either. The extremely competitive and relationship-driven business that develops and distributes TV shows is still dominated by white men.

Reid jokes, ``There's probably more blacks in the Aryan Nation than there are in network boardrooms.'' Reid, who previously starred on such shows as ``Frank's Place'' and ``WKRP in Cincinnati,'' says he thinks it's ``a little immoral in this day and age'' to have such a lack of diversity on television. But he recognizes that when he pitches new shows that feature multiracial casts, he must present it as a pure business decision.

``The networks want to foster the belief that they're broad, while the reality is, they and everyone else are now going into the niche marketing business,'' Reid said. ``That means it's bad business not to serve the whole community. They may be making a lot of money right now, but it's not going to last.''

That sentiment is echoed by Latinos, who are helping Spanish-language radio and television stations overtake English-language ones in major Latino markets. While black lead characters are rare on the major networks, Latino leads are virtually nonexistent.

``(Spanish language broadcaster) Univision has the fastest growth of any network in the country,'' notes Ana Maria Fernandez Haar, president and chief executive of Miami-based marketing firm IAC Group and past president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. She says while it's disappointing that Latinos are nearly invisible on the major networks, it has been a boon to outlets such as Univision, which is attracting millions of dollars in advertising money from companies eager to reach the young and growing Latino family.

Fernandez Haar and Reid both attribute much of the erosion of network viewership to minorities turning elsewhere for their entertainment. ``I would say to network executives, `Would you like to be a competitor in the years to come, or would you like to disappear?'' said Fernandez Haar, who points out that Spanish is the predominant language in our hemisphere and that whites are expected to be a minority in the U.S. by the year 2050.

It's not just the ``suits'' who are white. The situation extends to the writers who shape characters: According to Writers Guild of America statistics, minority writers represented just 7 percent of those employed in television work and 5 percent of those employed in feature films in 1996 and 1997.

When minority writers do get work, it's often ``limited to specific sectors and genres,'' according to a study released by the WGA late last year. That is, black writers are hired for black shows. There are fewer of these shows, and they're more likely to be on the lower-rated networks such as UPN rather than the four major networks. While the WGA, like other Hollywood unions, has diversity committees, seminars and the like, the percentage of minority writers has remained fairly flat over the past six to seven years.

The apparent belief on the part of the major networks is that advertisers want young, white and therefore ``upscale'' audiences. This has resulted in the fall season being overloaded with ``dramas of teen angst,'' as Les Moonves told reporters last week.

Moonves is president of CBS, the only network that is bucking that trend by programming to an older audience. But the face of the network still remains overwhelmingly white.

Moonves boasts, for the record, that CBS is the only network to feature an Asian as the star of a TV series (although Sammo Hung's role on ``Martial Law'' is somewhat stereotypical, and the show airs on Saturday evening). Other than pointing out ``Martial Law,'' along with CBS' commitment to a new, multiracial midseason series from ``Hill Street Blues'' creator Steven Bochco, Moonves tap-danced around the question of race as much as Tarses and other network bigwigs did.

Advertisers and show creators seeking better representation of minorities on TV say the networks seem to have lost sight of the forest for the trees. While white kids with lots of disposable income are certainly attractive to advertisers, black, Latino and Asian families with tens of billions of dollars of spending power are extremely desirable, too. But for the most part, the networks currently seem content to pick up minorities along with the rest of the broad-as-possible audience they get with top sports and drama programming while leaving shows built around minority characters to the upstarts like UPN.

That doesn't wash with those who complain about underrepresentation. ``If the networks claim advertisers want (just young white people), why are marketers going the opposite way with their ads?'' asks Fernandez Haar. She asserts that marketers, because they must be in direct contact with their consumers and respond quickly, are doing a better job of speaking to minorities and showing them in their ads.

Next season's lineup, top-heavy with whites and teens, may just be another symptom of the networks struggling to keep their heads above water in the rapidly shifting currents of the TV business. Meanwhile, because of the lack of diversity in the system itself, the networks may not even realize they're overlooking a major problem.

While viewers often grumble and occasionally will write to networks to complain if they feel their race, age group or sex is being unfairly ignored on TV programming, Masur says positive encouragement is the most effective way to try to initiate change.

``We're encouraging anyone who feels underrepresented to, when they see themselves in a positive way, write four letters - one to the producer, one to the network, one to a major sponsor and one to the advertising agency. If 500 people say, `I'm not watching,' '' Masur says, ``that's not going to change your ratings. Big deal. But 50 people on the plus side can really mean something.'`

Going full circle puts advertisers back in control (sort of)

As much as the networks are scrambling to please advertisers today, television in its early days was completely advertiser-driven. The movie studios wanted nothing to do with TV in its infancy - they saw it as a threat to their business. So, shows were underwritten by advertisers, who in exchange got to name the show after themselves (Texaco Star Theater, Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre) and - hopefully - create a hit show in the process.

Once the studios wised up, the business model changed. Studios laid out the initial investment required to produce shows, then sought to make their money back by selling the show and its advertising time to broadcasters. This basic model has remained in place to this day, though a few large companies such as Hallmark have continued to make direct investments in programming.

Now, a number of market forces are converging that may presage a return to the old, advertiser-sponsored television show model. As the TV audience continues to fragment - with viewers being drawn away by the new networks and myriad cable outlets - the few shows that do manage to attract a huge audience, such as ``ER,'' have become insanely expensive to produce. And, even as the networks say they're catering to what advertisers want, advertisers are indicating that they're often frustrated with the offerings - and are looking for more control over the product.

Enter Brand X, a newly formed Beverly Hills-based company that is devoted to developing advertiser-sponsored, ``branded'' programming. The firm is seeking to update the old formula for making TV shows.

Brand X partner Heidi Sinclair thinks the change could have only a positive effect on on-screen diversity. ``Most companies ... are trying to talk to the breadth of their consumers. What they're doing already in their marketing better reflects our society today (than does a lot of television),'' said Sinclair.

Since Brand X's first show isn't expected to hit the air until early next year, Sinclair can't get too specific about their projects. But she says companies are definitely looking to promote diversity in their programming.

Sinclair says that currently, the networks seem to be targeting a very narrow demographic (``upscale'' - read, mostly white - younger adults) at the expense of diversity. ``The networks say, here are our demos. Advertisers just have to react against that. We're looking at a more collaborative process, which I think will end up being more representative of the larger consumer community than the target demographic communities the networks are promoting.''

- Marla Matzer


Photo, 2 Boxes

Photo: (Cover--Color) Color blind?

Despite calls for diversity, the networks' fall schedules pale in comparison to the population

Box: (1) PRIME-TIME 1999-2000

(2) Going full circle puts advertisers back in control (sort of) (See text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 2, 1999

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