Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Why was it such big news last week that NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios had hired Karen Horne, as “Director of Entertainment Diversity Initiatives?” The key word here is “diversity.” One would think conglomerates like NBC Universal would have personnel focused on diversity in all departments, and that such positions would have been established maybe 15 years ago. Or 20. It is unsettling to see a large media conglomerate pat itself on its corporate back for recognizing the need to diversify its personnel at this late date.

I can’t help wondering if the latest efforts among the major television networks to increase their numbers of Latin, Asian, Hispanic, Black and other minority staffers has something to do with a 2008 year-end report from the NAACP. Since 2002, the organization has had a Hollywood bureau, which operates as something of a watchdog on the media companies. The report, titled "Out of Focus, Out of Sync -- Take 4 - A Report on the Television Industry," roundly criticizes the networks for their lack of progress in multi-culturalizing their staffs. You can read the 46-page report for yourself, simply by clicking on the link in the preceding sentence, but here are some highlights:

• One of three Americans is now a minority. Hispanics: 44.3 million people; Black: 40.2 million; Asian: 14.9 million; Native-Americans 4.5 million.
• From 2002 to 2007, the number of blacks in regular and recurring roles on NBC decreased nearly 50 percent. Unlike the other major networks, NBC did not provide the NAACP with data on minorities employed at the management or executive levels, or about efforts to diversify its corporate and executive ranks. It also failed to provide information about minority hires at the director level or above. In 2006, of 71 teams who made pitches on the network for comedy pilots, only four included a minority member.
• Compared to NBC, ABC and FOX, the CBS network employs the lowest number of minorities in writing and producing positions.
• On ABC, 74% of regular, recurring and guest roles on scripted and unscripted series feature white actors or contestants. This percentage has not increased or decreased since 2003.
• The only minority lead in a new show on a major network for the 2008-2009 TV season is “Cleveland Brown,” (left) a black animated character voiced by a white person.

You begin to get the picture, right? In a speech to the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2004, Barack Obama said, "TV ought to reflect the reality of America's diversity and should do so with pride and dignity, not with stereotypes." If television's dismissal of minorities is really institutional racism, why are Americans letting them get away with it? Does one “Ugly Betty” (right) make up for virtually no representation of the 44.3 million Hispanics in this country? At a moment in our culture when the gay population is more powerful and politically controversial than ever, why are gay people invisible on network TV? Has there even been one true black TV mega-star since Cosby?

It would behoove NBC Universal and all of the other networks, traditional and cable, to routinely hire individuals (plural) to promote diversity on television, behind the camera and in the executive offices. The industry should look more like the country. It does not. And when they do hire such individuals to ensure diversity in all ranks, they do not need to issue press releases to brag about it. Do they issue press releases to brag about their new head of accounting, human resources or consumer relations? They do not, because those are considered staples in the organization. Why are diversity specialists not considered necessary and routine hires? It is not 1980. We are not novices in the hiring, promoting and inclusion of blacks, Hispanics and others.

And what of those individuals the public sees? Is it impossible for “The Hills” to feature minority actors, as well as well-scrubbed white kids? Have you ever noticed that on the rare occasion a prime time drama features a love affair between two minorities, it is usually a minor sub plot, not a main plot, and it is always between supporting actors, not leads? And then there is daytime: aside from our holy St. Oprah of Chicago, there really is not one major minority player in daytime television. When Victoria Rowell, formerly “Dru” on “The Young and Restless,” left the show a couple of years ago, she expressed disappointment in the production for limiting the number of minorities. There are a few blacks in the show, but no other minorities. Most daytime dramas have almost no minority characters.

Do you want to know why this even matters? Ask yourself this: What does television really do? Does it reflect our culture, or does it actually shape it? Either way, the lack of minorities on TV is a losing proposition. If TV reflects our culture, then shame on us, because what it is showing us is that the society is focusing heavily on one segment of the population, and essentially ignoring the rest. But if TV shapes the culture, we’re really in trouble. Has it shaped a culture that is exclusive, rather than inclusive? Just a gentle reminder: One of every three Americans is a minority.

The NAACP may just be making some waves at the networks. CBS now has its “Diversity Institute,” which endeavors to find and employ talented minority individuals as writers, director, actors and more. FOX, which far outshines all of its competitors in the NAACP report, has had a department of Diversity Development since 2001. ABC launched the Disney-ABC Diversity Creative Development Program to increase diversity in their writing pool. Baby steps, but steps just the same.

And NBC? Well, “NBC is extremely pleased to welcome Karen Horne…” yada, yada, yada.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

It matters. It's always mattered. For those of us who grew up in integrated [racially, religiously, socioeconomically, etc.] n'hoods and always wondered why TV shows didn't reflect our n'hood. But NOW it's more obvious. It's odd.