Hollywood Examined On Minority Roles

THE television and motion-picture industry is under mounting pressure to hire more minorities and change the way blacks, Latinos, and other groups are portrayed on the big and small screens.

Activists and some academics say the entertainment industry has made little progress in putting minorities behind and in front of the camera, and that those who get a part usually play stereotyped roles. The result gives children - many of whom spend more time watching TV than they do communicating with parents - a one-dimensional view of minority achievements and aspirations. Some say the lack of diversity in roles - blacks too often play criminals or welfare mothers; Latinos are gardeners or gang membe rs - contributes to ethnic and racial tensions.

"Television is an important vehicle for children to learn about themselves and other people," says Gordon Berry, a professor of psychology and communication at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). "If children don't see people like themselves on television, they feel their group isn't very important."

Marla Gibbs, a black actress, says: "Every time we see ourselves, we're victims. We're not seen as mothers and fathers - as being able to make viable contributions to society."

These and other comments critical of Hollywood surfaced at a hearing of the United States Commission on Civil Rights held here last week to examine the state of racial and ethnic tensions in the US.

Accentuating the concern about minority hiring and portrayal were two studies released last week by entertainment-industry unions. They showed that:

* White males under 40 work more and earn more than any other group cast on television. Women, ethnic and racial minorities, older people, and the disabled are vastly underrepresented in comparison to their numbers in society.

The study of 10 years of programming released by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists found that 1 out of every 3 characters in prime-time television was a woman. On Saturday mornings, it is 1 out of 5 characters; blacks represent 3 percent of the characters, and Latinos less than 1 percent.

* The Writers Guild of America, West, found that minority writers for TV and film have made substantial gains at a few companies, but overall improvements have been modest. In 1991, 3.9 percent of TV writers were minorities, up from 2.9 percent in 1987. In film, they increased from 2 percent to 2.6 percent.

Chon Noriega, an assistant professor of critical studies at UCLA, says Latinos are the "most underrepresented of all the underrepresented groups." He cites statistics showing that only .8 percent of the characters portrayed on television last year were Hispanic. (Hispanics make up 9 percent of the US population.)

Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Productions, says the lack of Latino representation is "abominable." But he and others say the industry has made progress in hiring more blacks and women, giving them a wider diversity of roles, and reducing some of the negative stereotyping.

"The nature of the portrayals has changed a great deal," says Mr. Stoddard. "It may not be as positive as everyone would like, but it isn't as negative."

Jeffrey Sagansky, president of CBS Entertainment, says 70 percent of the shows his network ordered this year have a minority lead or co-lead. He calls the industry's overall record on the issue a "mixed bag."

Insiders and analysts cite varying reasons for the dearth of minorities and women in Hollywood: the commercial pressures behind film and TV; the unwillingness of studios and networks to take risks; and the difficulty of moving up in an industry where friendships and personal contacts are so important - and in which white males now dominate.

Suggested solutions range from more training and mentoring programs for nonwhites, to more active enforcement of the federal standards on minority hiring, to viewer boycotts.

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