Boycott threat widened

NAACP looks beyond broadcast networks for diversity, to advertisers and agencies

The "B" word-as in boycott-is still being bandied about as the NAACP continues its scrutiny of diversity at the broadcast networks.

And it's not only the broadcast networks that are being threatened this time. Advertisers and ad agencies that don't support diversity on the air and behind the TV scenes also are being eyed, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume told broadcasters gathered last Monday in Washington for the second NAB Education Foundation Service to America Summit.

In the long run, government intervention-or the threat of it-might be required, he said. "Some argue that [change is] not going to happen on its own."

For example, it might be worth revisiting "fin-syn," the rules repealed in 1995 that had barred the broadcast networks from owning prime time programming and syndicating it. Or perhaps Congress could be persuaded to enact legislation that would set a quota for the number of hours of programming produced by minorities, Mfume said. Such action would require the agreement of the entire NAACP-led coalition of African-, Latin- and Asian-Pacific-Americans and American Indians that last summer objected to the dearth of minorities as stars of the Big Four's prime time shows. (Various concessions were eked out of all four.)

"We get there by talking about it and keeping the pressure on," said Mfume. "The NAACP plans to keep the pressure on."

The NAACP also is scrutinizing the country's top 100 advertisers, who also might need boycotting. "The networks weren't solely culpable in this system," Mfume said. Also accountable are advertisers and ad agencies that not only target specific demographics-"subtly or maybe not so subtly in some cases"-but don't speak up when minorities are excluded from the network business, he said.

Mfume seemed to lay some blame at the feet of his association. Unnamed "advocacy groups ... fell asleep at the switch in the 1960s. We woke up in the late 1990s."

Improvements are already showing up in network plans for the upcoming fall season, he noted. However, there's still "a long, long way to go."

News and sports programming is particularly troublesome. For example, Mfume said, he rarely sees a black face on CBS' Face the Nation. ("We don't keep track," FTN moderator Bob Schieffer says. "We follow the news, whatever the top story of the week is." He notes that his show's producer is an Asian-American.)

Later this summer, The WB and UPN will be subject to the same scrutiny that the Big Four networks received last summer, Mfume said after his speech. Between them, "one clearly gets it, and one may need a little help in terms of understanding the issue [of diversity]." He declined to comment further on which is which.