Don't call it a comeback

How TV networks turned around their lily-white lineups -- and why that still isn't enough.

Published May 23, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Back in 1999, Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, blasted prime-time television's "virtual whitewash in programming" of black characters and actors. He was reacting to the 1999 prime-time lineup, which had not one black or minority performer in a leading role in any of 26 new programs.

The networks reacted -- and fast. Shows without black actors added them. "The West Wing," for example, on NBC, quickly cast Dulé Hill as the president's personal aide. Other shows responded too. Indeed, the moves led to an overrepresentation of African-Americans in prime-time network television for that year.

"The nation's largest minority group is over-represented in prime-time television programming," said the African-American Television Report, a June 2000 Screen Actors Guild-commissioned study of the 1999-2000 fall television season. "African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 16 percent of the characters seen on the networks during prime time."

Problem solved?

Not a chance. That effort, token or not, didn't even begin to address the issue of the way blacks are represented on network television. Although African-Americans have been a presence on television since its birth, their presence hasn't always been a positive or representative one.

Why? The answer varies depending upon whom you ask and what statistics you look at. Mostly, though, the question leads to the conclusion that TV is still considered a business that takes place in a vacuum rather than a cultural force with significant social side effects.

To look at the problem from a purely statistical point of view, the Screen Actors Guild commissioned the African-American Television Report to examine the landscape well before the uproar occurred. But by the time the study of the 1999-2000 season had been completed, most networks had already reacted to the criticism.

While several shows added black series regulars, which led to the overrepresentation, those characters were "often ... marginal to the programs' central narratives," according to Darnell Hunt, who wrote the SAG report. And more significantly, the report found, "over 44 percent of all African-American characters seen in prime time" were on the WB and UPN -- "the two upstart networks with the smallest viewership and the shakiest futures," Hunt says.

With just under 13 percent of its characters African-American, CBS was "the only major network that seemed to present important black characters in rough proportion to the share of blacks in the overall population," he says.

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Hunt's study coincides with several examinations of African-Americans on TV. Another is Donald Bogle's "Primetime Blues," an exhaustive study of the history of African-Americans on prime time. His smartly written, nearly 500-page narrative chronicles the significant contributions of African-Americans -- and the slow evolution of their presence on television.

Bogle says that 1963's "East Side, West Side," which featured Cicely Tyson as "a brown-skinned African American woman, who was not a ditsy maid ... [and] was functioning successfully in a professional life," made progress over the earliest, most directly racist programs. Later, there were exaggerated black comedies like "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" and "Sanford & Son." He argues that not until "The Cosby Show," long after the civil rights movement, was there a series that "truly reflected a certain African-American sensibility."

Television is affected by the social-political atmosphere, but often trails sociopolitical change, Bogle says. The African-American community criticized TV shows that aired in the 1960s -- shows that would have been cutting-edge, progressive programs a decade earlier -- because they failed to address the current societal and political climate. "Television is a really a very conservative sort of medium," says Bogle. "It's coming into people's homes."

There's evidence, too, that other groups aren't being treated fairly by Hollywood. SAG's report "Still Missing: Latinos in and out of Hollywood" primarily examined the overall Latino employment in the entertainment industries, rather than their appearance on television; still, it found that Latino or Hispanic actors "face an uphill battle to find employment in the entertainment industry."

"It takes television quite a while before [programming] really begins to catch up" to the political landscape. Shows like "'NYPD Blue' or maybe 'Homicide' or maybe 'ER' are closer to the spirit and the social-political outlook of the era in which they appear," Bogle says. Still, they're not perfect; although Bogle and others praise "ER" for presenting some representative characters, they still lack "cultural definition and cultural references."

The SAG study found that the current TV grid concentrates African-American shows on particular evenings and, more significantly, smaller networks. UPN, which along with the WB is the youngest network on the air, overwhelmingly led the six-network pack in all categories relating to African-Americans: the number of black characters, the number of black series regulars as a percent of all black characters, black series regulars as a percent of all series regulars and average screen time for black characters.

The African-American audience is clearly important to UPN, so much so that UPN president of entertainment Tom Nunan doesn't mind it being called "the black network."

Nunan says the network's "main goal is to reflect the way America looks and is, in terms of a diverse collection of performers, not just in terms of their ethnicity, but in terms of their sex and age as well."

"As an alternative network," he says, "we always have to be thinking a little bit differently and programming a little bit differently so that the viewer has that relationship with us: 'Oh, this doesn't look or feel like the big networks.'"

One of those big networks used to share UPN's reputation. Fox debuted in 1986, and several of its early shows had African-American themes. But in the 1999-2000 season, the SAG report found Fox in last place in all of the categories that UPN led; only 3.2 percent of all the network's regular characters were African-American.

Steve Johnson, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, says that, historically, "a new network starts up, and they need to put some numbers on the board right away. And the way they do that is by appealing to black audiences in the larger cities, and essentially they milk that for a few years, and when they're ready to move on, like Fox, they drop those shows."

Fox executives were not available for comment. But UPN's Nunan, who worked for Fox during the period that it was known for shows like "In Living Color" and "Martin" -- not "The X-Files" or "Ally McBeal" -- says of Johnson's thesis, "I think it does ring with a certain degree of truth in terms of history."

Fox "had enormous success with those shows," he says, and Fox "did rely on this audience when they were starting up and now they've abandoned it, by perception. Whether or not that's actually something they set out to do, who knows. But that's what happened."

So does UPN plan to drop its current slate of African-American programs when its audience reaches a certain point? "This audience is extremely valuable to us," Nunan says. "In embodying the reputation of being alternative to the viewer, part of that is with different ethnic groups that don't feel as though there's anything that connects with them on the other networks, including seeing faces that look like them. And it's going to continue to be a big priority for us going ahead."

Still, he admits that his network, like all others, has "to find a way to make money and try to build upon our revenue year by year." Right now, he says, UPN's audience is "absolutely ... valuable" and the network is delivering the right audience to the right companies.

Still, he says, "there's some talk [about] whether or not this audience is valuable to Madison Avenue, because ultimately all of these networks are just advertising tools or mediums."

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But advertisers aren't solely responsible for the way African-Americans are portrayed on network TV. Hunt, who is the chairman of the department of sociology and director of African-American studies at the University of Southern California, says that the problem is systemic and partially the fault of "industry inertia."

"Creative people of color are underemployed at every stage in the production process, leading to a prime time that underrepresents people of color and their stories, while often portraying the ones who are shown in implausible and unsuccessful ways," Hunt says.

So when African-Americans do appear on television, how do they appear? Although Hunt's SAG study only analyzed characters' professions, and not any other aspects of their personalities, Hunt says that he's concerned that just over half of all black characters appeared in sitcoms, compared with 30.2 percent of white characters. "This, of course, raises the specter of the age-old black buffoon stereotype, and the corresponding fear that black characters are most acceptable to the larger audience when they are bumbling, comedic and not meant to be taken very seriously," he says.

The content of the shows can be subtly negative, too, and can even come during commercial breaks. A study just released by the University of Chicago's Children's Hospital found that "black prime-time television contains 60 percent more food and beverage commercials, more images of candy and soda, and more obese characters than general prime-time television." The researchers say that "may influence the eating behaviors of African-Americans," who are more overweight as a group (60 percent) than the population as a whole (54 percent).

Even the networks with strong minority representation may have less-than-ideal content in their shows. For example, although UPN's programming may be progressive in the sheer quantity of African-American shows and performers who appear on its lineup, most of the network's shows are sitcoms, like "Moesha" and "The Hughleys."

UPN's Nunan defends programs like "The Parkers." They're not "debasing in any fashion," he says, but rather feature "aspirational" situations and "positive role models ... not just for the African-American viewer, but for any viewer."

Nunan says that the length and genre of the show aren't what matter. "That they're half-hour comedies and there's a laugh track,I don't think at all harks back to the days of 'Amos 'n' Andy' or Stepin Fetchit." He points to the "leading roles with ethnic Americans in all of our programming, half-hour, one-hour and reality" as evidence of the network's far-reaching diversity.

Reggie Rock Bythewood, a film and television writer, doesn't mind black sitcoms. "There are a lot of silly white shows," he points out. The problem "is that we don't have really a balance ... shows that would balance out some of the sillier shows."

Bythewood wrote and directed the HBO movie "Dancing in September," which deals with the subject of African-Americans on TV, focusing on how "African-American writers and executives deal with their working in an industry that permits this to go on." The film follows "a television writer moving up the ranks of the black sitcom world amid network boycotts from [a] civil rights organization" who is passionate about producing programs that are reflective of black people's lives. She's fired from a show for "speaking out against [its] racist characterizations," and so she pitches a new show that becomes a success.

Bythewood wrote for shows like NBC's "A Different World" and Fox's "New York Undercover." He began thinking about "Dancing in September" when "New York Undercover" eliminated a Puerto Rican actor and character to bring in more white characters.

Broadening a show's audience -- whether it's an African-American-oriented program or a program predominantly white in focus -- is sometimes a goal. Author Bogle says, "It's great if it connects to a larger audience as well, but we've been so starved for images, or images that we feel are not degrading, and that are progressive, that it is important how [the show] connects [with] that black audience."

Different shows do appeal to different audiences, and while black households and white households still predominantly like different television shows, there are signs that the gap may be closing. In 1996, for example, "Monday Night Football" was the only program that appeared on the Top 20 favorite shows of both black and white households. Now, however, eight of the Top 20 favorite shows in black homes are on the Top 20 lists of white homes as well, USA Today reported in April. And in February, the Washington Post reported a similar figure, calling it "the greatest common viewing experience in at least a decade."

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The SAG-commissioned African-American Television Report concludes with four recommendations for the television industry. First, it says, "African-American characters should be positioned more frequently as heroes/heroines in their respective shows."

Second, "shows with an 'opportunity' to add African-American series regulars should do so."

Third, African-American characters in predominantly white shows "should be developed more extensively."

And finally, "Writing staffs should be diversified so that stories told position minority performers for more meaningful roles."

It's that last suggestion report author Hunt considers the most crucial in the ongoing battle, because it will have a key effect on the rest. Still, "it will take ongoing, vigilant community pressure, I believe, to slowly peck away at the structural imbalances that define the industry today," Hunt says. "Only when this structure has been transformed will the issue of diversity become a nonissue. I am not too optimistic that this will occur anytime soon."

Johnson says that's primarily because networks "tend to take chances with what they know" -- falling back on familiar writers and producers, who often are white. And when they do take chances, airing a show like a black drama, he says, the networks "tend to ... play it way too safe, and as a result it's a little dry, it's a little preachy, it's a little boring."

In order for blacks to achieve a more representative balance on television, advertisers have to recognize the value of the audience; writers have to connect with important and significant ideas. And networks and their executives have to give African-American shows the "time to find an audience, and ... time for an audience to relate to the rhythm of a show and the premise of a show," just as they do for slow-starting but ultimately successful white shows like "Cheers" and "Family Ties," Bogle says.

Will more African-American actors help? Bogle thinks both quantity and quality are important. "I would like to see more, and I would like to see what's there to be accurate," he says. UPN's Nunan says that the network just "want[s] to do what feels natural. Frankly, what is natural for us is that our casts are diverse, and that's the way the U.S. is, and that to me is what's so bizarre about what our competition does, because it's so lily-white across the board."

And that's a problem, says Hunt. "As our most central cultural forum, we rely upon television to give us a sense of who we are, who we are not and who we hope to be," he says. "Wildly overrepresenting a dominant group on television at the expense of others influences this meaning-making process in ways that work against the ideals of an open and diverse society."

Hunt has a point. Culturally and socially, television plays a huge role in American lives. While television shows -- from "The Cosby Show" to "ER," "Moesha" to "Survivor" -- aren't just products for sale on a shelf at Wal-Mart, they do have an often significant impact on consumers. But networks don't treat them that way. No one wants to deny networks a right to make creative decisions or prohibit them from making money. But like companies that create toxic waste or develop products that have harmful side effects, networks and producers need to remain conscious of -- and be held accountable for -- the effects of their actions.

In a way, networks even have an obligation by nature of their very existence to accurately represent society and all of its members. "The networks keep pleading ratings and money ... but they keep conveniently forgetting that they exist by virtue of using the public airwaves," the Chicago Tribune's Johnson says. "And somewhere they ought to have a duty to do a better a job at representing the public and giving African-American kids images they can look at and see and feel proud of -- and just feel like they exist."

By Andy Dehnart

Andy Dehnart is a writer living in Chicago.

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