Each year, television critics head to southern California to preview the fall TV lineup. This year, the buzz has been largely about success of "reality TV" and how it will continue to reshape what Americans see on the tube in the next 12 months.
Last year, the hot topic was racial diversity. A report showed that minority characters were nearly excluded from principal roles on the new prime-time shows. A year later, the TV lineup is getting more colorful, especially on cable channels. The Monitor's Gloria Goodale reports from the TV critics' meeting (see page 18).
Meanwhile, a new study, timed for release at the gathering, has looked beyond the raw numbers at the way characters of color are portrayed on 22 prime-time shows that have been deemed to be the most racially diverse.
It found that "TV shows rarely portray the reality of everyday race relations," says Patti Miller, director of the Children and Media program at Children Now, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group that sponsored the study. "Characters of color are often not seen as important as white characters, and stereotypes are still easy to find. This sends a message to kids that reinforces negative images."
But not all the findings were bad: "Nonwhite characters, particularly African Americans, were likely to be portrayed as successful, good, and competent." And "prime-time television programs featured many African-American characters that could be positive role models for viewers."
Reality TV "is not just a fad, it is a trend," Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, told the same critics' gathering. His network has so far failed to come up with a "reality" show to rival ABC ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire") and CBS ("Survivor" and "Big Brother") but now promises it will by next summer. NBC, which prides itself on "ER," "Frasier," and "West Wing," is looking at a reality show in which a woman is literally chained to four suitors and periodically releases one.
Meanwhile, who'll be left on the tropical island (and with the $1 million) when "Survivor" concludes Aug. 23 has become the TV talk of the summer, including supposed leaks of the identity of who won (the series was taped last spring).
Fans looking for clues are "a lot like the Kremlinologists of the Cold War days, who would pore over photos from the Soviet Union to see who was in favor with the politicians," Paul Sims of Dallas, who runs a Web site clearinghouse for "Survivor" rumors, told the Associated PRess. CBS, of course, has "no comment" (while no doubt stifling a Cheshire-cat grin).
The "survivors" are having an easier time getting airtime than President Clinton these days. Reality TV may be taking over the tube, but "reality" in the form of political news isn't so hot this summer. It looked for a while that the president's speech at the Democratic National Convention wouldn't be broadcast on ABC because it conflicted with a preseason Monday Night Football Game telecast. The same conflict would have arisen during the Republican convention. ABC now says it has agreed with the NFL to begin the two football broadcasts at 7 p.m. Eastern time to allow political coverage after the game.
Just what's at stake in downloading music off the Internet for free? The issue is symbolized right now in a lawsuit filed against the Napster Web site (which facilitates such downloading) by the Recording Industry Association of America.
"Downloadable music really is the canary in the coal mine for all types [of entertainment]. It's not just about music, it's about [free downloading of] video, movies, and books," said Jim Griffin, chief executive of Cherry Lane Digital, a Los Angeles media and technology company.
But there may be no way to effectively police the Internet as new sites and new downloading technologies emerge almost daily. "The genie is not only out of the bottle, but the bottle has been dropped and broken," added Michael Robertson, president of MP3.com.
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