AUSTIN, TEXAS — Quick: Which show do Hispanics watch most on TV? "Guinness World Records," followed by "Wildest Police Videos" - both on Fox. How about blacks? "Steve Harvey Show" - on WB. And whites? "E.R." and "Friends" - on NBC.
Welcome to the fragmented world of 1990s television.
In an age when many believe TV should be America's great public square, it is more segregated than ever - with channels now appealing to everyone from black teens to older Hispanic immigrants.
Behind this fragmentation lies a new economic reality that helps explain why so many shows on the Big Three networks are now dominated by whites - the issue de jour for Hollywood. (View from the studios, page 13.)
Unlike the days of the Bill Cosby show, where all of America watched three networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, today's market features channels on cooking, travel, food, hunting, and even pet-loving. With cable networks carving up all these highly marketable niches, the networks are left to scramble for the largest remaining audience segment - suburban whites.
It's an environment that's more attuned to market whims than to social diversity. This is exacerbating the clash between TV executives and groups like the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization, and the NAACP, the black civil-rights group, both of which are calling for a boycott of the major networks because of their all-white fall lineup of new shows.
"The big three networks no longer control 100 percent of the market," says John Burnett, a marketing expert at the University of Denver. "For the advertisers, it's pure dollars and cents. They look at the demographics. They know the fastest growing market is minorities, and the fact is, they are watching the cable channels. So for them, that market has been taken care of."
There is diversity
Some observers suggest that today's segmented media environment is a healthy sign that diversity and market forces can coexist, and serve an increasingly segmented society.
"When you start totalling up the minority representation of all the shows on TV, things are actually pretty good," says Nick Gillespie, executive editor of the libertarian Reason Magazine. "I think it's misrepresenting the efforts of the major networks to say they're ignoring minorities. Network TV is moving toward mixed-race ensemble shows," he adds, citing dramas like "E.R."
But this argument doesn't impress civil-rights leaders. For them, the lack of minorities on TV is a problem that can have deep cultural implications. The solution, they say, may lie in encouraging more minorities to create, write, and direct shows.
"We're talking about improving minority representation behind the cameras, where the decisions get made," says John White with the NAACP in Baltimore. "One of the chief reasons there are 26 new shows without minority characters may not be out of a deliberate attempt to whitewash television, but simply because the people making the decisions didn't take it into consideration."
Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, says Latinos understand the trend in TV is away from big networks toward smaller cable channels and mini-networks. But network TV, which reaches 90 percent of American households, "is still the biggest game in town," she says.
In 1994, the council found that Latinos made up only 1 percent of the characters on TV, although they make up 11 percent of the population. Most had negative roles such as thieves and gang members. The networks boosted the number of roles in 1996 to 2 percent, more of which were positive. But in the fall '99 season, there are no new Hispanic lead characters.
If networks are quick to blame advertisers for demanding an all-white lineup, some advertisers themselves retort that networks simply don't understand the minority audience. And it's a mistake that is probably costing the networks money and viewership.
"Generally speaking, Latinos want to be recognized, they want to be seen as part of the fabric that is America," says Ernest Bromley, chairman of the San Antonio advertising firm Bromley Aguilar & Associates, which produces Spanish-language ads. From a Latino-market perspective, the current network offerings are "woefully inadequate."
An overlooked market
Sam Chisholm, chairman of Chisholm & Mingo, a New York-based ad firm, says that networks tend to blame advertisers for only wanting to appeal to young, white, affluent viewers. But his corporate customers recognize that minority viewers, especially blacks, tend to be trendsetters in entertainment and fashion, and their consumption habits are of keen interest to corporate America.
By creating a lineup of mainly white characters, the networks "are portraying a public that doesn't exist," says Mr. Chisholm. "It's almost as if we need to go back to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but we have not gone that far in [portraying] interracial marriages since the '50s," he adds. "They didn't hide from ethnicity, they used it. And it was very appealing to a general market audience."
Some media critics want greater regulation of the airwaves, arguing that the free market will never deliver programs as diverse as America, as long as some viewers are seen as more valuable, or affluent, than others. "The diversity of channels does not guarantee minority representation," says George Gerbner, a communications expert at Temple University in Philadelphia. "You could have all cable channels competing for the same audience, the same slice of the big cheese."
But for Pamela Ezell, an English professor who watches network trends closely, the more frightening prospect is if television - and the larger society - does become more fragmented.
"It's almost like the networks are carving up territories," says Dr. Ezell, who teaches at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. "The networks may be for the suburbs, the Midwest, and the South. Cable and the smaller channels may be for urban areas. Television is our most important voice of society. It's important that our national media reflect our national experience. It doesn't now."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society