NAACP's war on television
BOSTON — The National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP), renowned for its fight against school segregation and poll taxes, has happened upon a dangerous new enemy to African-Americans: TV sitcoms.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume earlier this month announced his group's anger at the lack of African-American stars among the 26 shows debuting this fall. He declared this omission an outrage, and blamed the fact on "clueless" network executives.
The NAACP is the latest in a series of minority groups who have been harassing television for, in one critic's words, its "ethnic cleansing" of the airwaves.
Nothing could be further from the truth. TV networks are not bastions of racist sentiment, nor are executives bigots using their position to manipulate the public. They are businesses, and like any good business, they respond to the demands of the market they serve.
Networks run shows about affluent Caucasians in New York because it's what large numbers of Americans tune in to see. Shows like "Friends" and the late "Seinfeld" routinely dominated sitcom Neilsen ratings in past years, while shows such as "The PJs," which targeted primarily black audiences, never achieved wide appeal.
Advertisers will not pay for air time during shows few people watch; were networks to air those shows anyway, they would go bankrupt, and then there'd be nothing on the airwaves.
Mr. Mfume might counter that this amounts to a simple tyranny of the majority, where specifically black interests are never heard.
But this also is a stretch of reality. Basic economics states that when a significant portion of consumers is being ignored by suppliers, additional suppliers will enter the market to supply that niche.
The decentralization of television through cable has done just that - allowing a wide variety of broadcasting that the Big Four networks would not necessarily air. In fact, Black Entertainment Television, has built a billion-dollar cable empire catering to black viewers.
Indeed, with cable's constant drain on the viewership of the Big Four networks, and the networks' shift in recent years from sitcoms to newsmagazines (a fact the NAACP openly acknowledges), one wonders why Mfume is making a mountain out of such a shrinking molehill anyway.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that such actions by the NAACP harm the advancement of African-Americans already in the television industry.
Damon Standifer, an African-American television actor, wrote in The Washington Post last Sunday that when blacks protest too much, they actually hurt themselves.
He suggests that black activism - scrutinizing and criticizing nearly every black TV show that features black leads - has led networks to shy away from casting black actors in prominent roles.
The NAACP's picketing of UPN caused the network last November to cancel "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a comedy about a black butler in the Lincoln White House.
And similar protests by black activists have stirred up controversy recently over what they consider stereotypical depictions of blacks in the black comic actor Eddie Murphy's "The PJs," "The Wayans Bros." and other sitcoms.
Now, after helping eliminate so many shows with black leads, activists are crying that there are no black actors on television. It wouldn't be surprising if producers are reluctant to hire black talent for fear of attracting controversy: No matter how black actors are cast, someone is always upset by the depiction.
The most shocking revelation in the NAACP's statement is Mfume's vague suggestions of possible legal action. Citing the Communications Act of 1934, which deems all airwaves belong to the public, NAACP has threatened "litigation and civil action."
Against whom? The networks, for not committing financial suicide to advance minority interests? Or the Federal Communications Commission, for not regulating the profit motive out of broadcast television? Neither has violated any federal statutes.
In an era when both political parties have repudiated quotas as a tool of affirmative action, the 13 percent standard for featured black actors on network television touted by Mfume is an anachronism.
This lawsuit could not possibly stand up in a court of law, and resorting to such scare tactics tarnishes the reputation of the NAACP in the modern world.
This is an organization with a rich history, at the forefront of every civil rights fight this century.
It's unfortunate that it has been reduced to issuing threats against network television simply because a majority of viewers do not tune in to programming featuring black actors.
Or perhaps it is fortunate - it shows how far race relations have come in the last half century, if this is the biggest battle left to fight in the quest for racial equality.
*Daniel Lyons, a student of government at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., is a Charles G. Koch summer fellow in public policy in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society