The fall TV season hasn't lit up a single screen yet, but the sizzle is already on. Hollywood's toes are getting scorched over the hottest issue of the summer: racial diversity on network television. Blacks and Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the United States population, but the way the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) will tell the story, these Americans barely exist. When their 26 new fall shows were announced, not one had a minority leading character and only a handful showed diversity in their supporting or ensemble casts.
Stung at being perceived to be on the wrong side of an important social issue, industry executives are taking action. "With so little representation on the air," says "ER" executive producer John Wells, "every casting choice becomes symbolic."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) blasted the industry at its national convention in July, threatening legal action through the Federal Communications Commission if changes aren't made."This glaring omission is an outrage and a shameful display by network executives, who are either clueless or careless," said the NAACP president, Kweisi Mfume.
Joining the cause, and denouncing what it calls a "brownout," a coalition of Hispanic civil-rights groups has called for a boycott of the networks during the second week of September as the new shows roll out.
TV executives aren't really arguing. "We agree with their position that the racial composition of prime-time television needs to reflect the population as a whole," says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS television.
Over at ABC, executives say they were on top of the problem before the media activists. "Back in May, before the NAACP issued its statement, we recognized that our network was not as diverse as it should be," says Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group. "This is a large societal issue, and clearly we have an obligation to reflect society as it exists...."
Announcements of casting changes that sprinkle minority faces across the TV landscape dominated the summer meeting of television critics in Pasadena, Calif., that ended last Sunday.
ABC's "Wasteland," about a group of six white twentysomethings adrift in New York, has gained an additional African-American cast member, as has the new show "Once and Again." On returning shows, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" will add an African-American apprentice witch; "ER" has a new African-American female doctor; and "Law & Order" will feature an African-American detective. In a nod to the Asian community, "ER" has also added actress Ming-Na.
Knee-jerk response or genuine?
Perhaps because the criticism is clearly seen to be legitimate, few in the TV industry have been willing to appear to be simply giving a knee-jerk response. "We weren't looking for a black actress," says "Sabrina" writer Renee Phillips. "This black actress was just the best one for the job." In a similar vein, "Wasteland" creator and writer Kevin Williamson (who also created the "Scream" movies) says, "Ever since I pitched the show, this was part of the story line. I was going to introduce it a little later."
Without exception, the networks are on record as supporting diversity on the air, which leads to the obvious questions of how did this happen and what further changes need to be made?
"In pursuit of a certain upscale demographic," currently in vogue among advertisers - young, predominantly white professionals - the networks have lost ground, says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Six years ago, 18 percent of the characters on network TV were black. This past season, it slipped to 10 percent. Network critics say this focus on Madison Avenue's favorite demographic is shortsighted.
"The networks should listen to the NAACP," says Roy Campanella, executive producer at Black Entertainment Television, a cable channel, "and pay attention to a significant market segment: African-American viewers."
Beyond pleasing advertisers, the networks have a larger responsibility, say many observers. "Not everybody has access to cable," points out actress Halle Berry, who is starring in the coming made-for-TV movie based on the life of black actress Dorothy Dandridge.
Token changes aren't good enough, says Paris Barclay, the co-executive producer of CBS's "City of Angels," a predominantly black show from TV's premier storyteller, Steven Bochco, that's not scheduled to appear until next year.
"Most of the people who develop and oversee network television shows are white males who live in Malibu, Brentwood, or Bel Air," he says, referring to southern California's most affluent enclaves. "They don't know a lot of black people, and they're not interested in really writing those kinds of characters."
'Writing what I know'
Observations from other writers on this season's new shows support this. "I'm white and male, and I tend to write what I know," says Bruce Helford, a writer of several current TV shows on various networks. "I'm not black, and I don't have that experience, and I worry about saying something offensive unintentionally."
When asked about his vision of New York City in his new show "Wasteland" - one that includes virtually no blacks - Williamson says New York looks that way because that is "his experience of it."
People in Hollywood are "afraid of what they don't know," Mr. Barclay says, "and if you don't know a lot of different people, you're not going to write them, you're not going to invite them to be in the room with you to create the shows, and the shows aren't going to get on the air because they're not going to be the things that the networks have to choose from."
Mr. Bochco points out that although he is white, he went to racially integrated schools in New York City. "I sang with black people, I played basketball with black people. I've just had many black friends my whole life.
"So for me this is not anything particularly strange," he says, adding that more diversity is needed on both sides of the camera.
The networks say they are trying. "We have a Latino writers' program as well as a minority writers' program," says ABC's Mr. Bloomberg. CBS points out that it's the network that brought viewers "Cosby," and says that tradition will continue. NBC head Scott Sassa, as a Japanese-American, can point to his own credential as "the highest-placed minority executive in TV."
The speed and intensity of the networks' response may eventually be seen as a turning point in the dialogue between the entertainment industry and its critics on many fronts, from race to sex and violence, says Professor Thompson. "Who knows? Maybe the seriousness of this dialogue will produce a more reasoned dialogue about a range of issues, which would benefit everyone," he says.
Races disagree on 'must see TV'
Blacks and whites continue to have different viewing habits, according to a recent study by TN Media, the media-planning division of True North Communications in New York. Only three regular television series were rated in the Top 20 for both groups, while two of the top-rated shows in black households, "Steve Harvey Show" and "Jamie Foxx Show," are ranked No. 127 and No. 120, respectively, in white households.
TOP 10 PRIME-TIME PROGRAMS
(Fourth-quarter Nielsen television ratings, 1998)
1. Steve Harvey Show+ (WB)
2. Jamie Foxx Show+ (WB)
3. NFL Monday Night Football (ABC)
4. For Your Love+ (WB)
5. CBS Sunday Movie
6. Touched by an Angel+ (CBS)
7. 60 Minutes (CBS)
8. Moesha+ (UPN)
9. Walker, Texas Ranger+ (CBS)
10. The Wayans Brothers+ (WB)
1. ER+ (NBC)
2. Friends (NBC)
3. Frasier (NBC)
4. Veronica's Closet+ (NBC)
5. Jesse (NBC)
6. 60 Minutes* (CBS)
7. NFL Monday Night Football* (ABC)
8. Touched by an Angel+* (CBS)
9. NYPD Blue+* (ABC)
10. CBS Sunday Movie*
+ Black characters or lead characters
* Indicates also in Top 20 among black households
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society