Minorities hope TV deals don't just lead to 'tokenism'

Many in Hollywood applaud the fact that ABC and NBC have agreed to

A gentlemen's fencing match is playing out here over the issue of racial and ethnic diversity on - and behind - American television.

With handshakes and smiles, two of the four major networks have agreed with the NAACP on steps to foster diversity in their creative and business ranks. The deals, in which ABC and NBC promise reforms in recruiting, training, and show content, are expected to prompt similar moves from CBS and FOX soon.

The accord is being applauded by many writers, directors, actors, and producers here. But interviews with minorities who are currently working in Hollywood reflect a degree of doubt that the business culture will really change - and a worry that token roles and writing assignments for minorities will be the result.

In a town where who you know is often the key to getting work, the real challenge is to break through to like-minded producers and directors - mostly white - who associate with and hire people they feel are most capable of carrying out their ideas.

"People get and extend their careers with a kind of momentum of who you know and what you've done," says James Wong, an Asian American and co-executive producer of "The X-Files."

For him, doors were opened through association with longtime business partner Glen Morgan, a white friend he met in high school. "A whole path is closed off to minorities because they are not as exposed to the people and creative colleagues who can help open doors and lead them."

It's in the data

The long-term effects of that closed path are borne out by fresh data. Besides the fact that none of the 26 new fall programs had a minority lead, a recent report by a San Francisco advocacy group found 80 percent of all prime-time characters are white, 13 percent are black, and 3 percent are from all other minority groups.

"This is an extremely important question for Americans to be asking themselves, not just because of job opportunity within entertainment, but for the socialization of an entire country of citizens," says George Gerbner, a leading researcher on television for more than 30 years. "Do children and others grow up in a democratic environment or a monopoly environment...?"

Minorities generally applaud the recent NAACP agreements, which began Jan. 6 by NBC and was followed days later by ABC. They include detailed plans to hire minorities, to purchase more from minority businesses, to cast minorities in lead and other roles, and ensure that diversity is fostered at other levels.

"This is a bold and courageous step," says Paris Barclay, an African-American executive producer of "City of Angels," a new CBS drama with a largely African-American cast. "It's going to change the look and landscape of television very quickly. Maybe it will help broadcast television recapture the audience it's lost."

But conversations here reveal one caveat: the hope that such moves do not lead to token roles, with minorities chosen for their skin color, not their talent.

"The second you start legislating a fix with quota systems, you open the door to people grabbing someone of the right race as a seat filler," says Samantha Corbin, an African-American writer on "The Practice." Moreover, "people will suddenly have the question about me, 'Is she here because she's good or because she's black?' "

David Kelley, creator of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," says one challenge to correcting discriminatory practices - conscious and unconscious - is that evaluating talent is subjective.

"In the basketball world, you can pretty much quantify that Michael Jordan is the one scoring the points, getting the rebounds, blocking the shots, and so he is the one who is sought after," says Mr. Kelley, who is praised for minority hiring. "But with creating and acting, it's a whole set of intangibles.... No one can say conclusively why person X was or wasn't chosen."

Steven Bochco, creator of "Hill St. Blues," "L.A. Law," and "NYPD Blue," sees not "overt, rabid racism on the part of networks [but rather] a kind of institutional laziness - a kind of ennui that results in lack of diversity."

He also sees economic explanations. Several well-crafted black dramas that failed "have tended to make it easier for networks to say, 'Well, no matter how good they are, they just seem not to work.' "

Thus, Mr. Bochco and others say a nudge is not only necessary but welcome. As in other industries, TV decisionmakers often spend little time outside work with people of other races, insiders add.

"It's a societal thing," says black writer Chris Mack, also of "The Practice." "People like hanging out with those who are like themselves. When the whites come back [from a weekend], they've already decided this, that, and the other thing ... and the blacks have been left out."

If getting more minorities into creative and business jobs is one needed step, some argue another is simply adding a bit of colorblindness to plot lines.

"There are lots of roles where the character being called for is assumed to be white but does not necessarily have to be," says Bill Cobbs, a black actor with credits that include "The Sopranos" and "ER." "We need to keep pointing this out."

Think like yourself

Similarly, writers disparage the notion of writing for a certain race.

"As soon as you go down the road of trying to think how this person would react as a Latino, or black, or whatever, you are in trouble," says Alfonzo Moreno, writer for "The Practice." "It's how you are reacting as a husband or wife, or boss, or lover, that is important - not race."

Along these same lines, many successful minorities here say they have overcome discrimination through perseverance and a reluctance to cite the race issue when things didn't go their way.

"I have seen my own success and that of others rest on whether or not we decide to wear that experience and shove it back at people," says black director Robert Townsend. "I don't choose to wear the race problem as an issue, despite what I felt was some unfairness. In the end, it's the ability to create and work with others despite the negatives that helps correct a situation like we are in."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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