The Picture Isn't Perfect, But It Is Better

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When Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP's Image Awards, looks at diversity hiring trends, he compares show business with sports: “There are a lot of minority players. Not as many coaches. Even fewer owners.”

Things aren't perfect, but this year, the NAACP isn't complaining, at least not when it comes to the film industry. For the first time, five African-Americans have been nominated for Oscars. Bulluck is happy, but he does point out, “It's the first time ever—and this is 2005.” The association's Image Awards, airing March 25 on Fox, will be an indicator of how racial diversity has become more mainstream.

In television, there are now several black cable networks: BET, the newly-renamed Black Family Channel, TV One and the Word Network among them. On the broadcasting side, UPN is paying special attention to African-American viewers, not just pushing substandard fare at that audience (see story, page 23).

Today's television picture tells a different story from last decade's. In 1999, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who stepped down last month, referred to network TV as a “virtual whitewash” and threatened a boycott. Mfume's outrage was strong enough to make the networks pay attention.

“That definitely put the issue on the front burner,” Bulluck says.

Mfume's threat led the Big Four to implement strong diversity efforts. “There are writing and acting programs and diversity chiefs at CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox,” Bulluck says. “That didn't exist before.”

In a study of prime time released in May 2004, public-interest group Children Now found that 73% of all prime time roles were played by whites, 16% by African-Americans and 6.5% by Latinos. Of all ethnic groups, Latinos saw the greatest improvement from 2001 to 2003.

Behind the camera, the gains have not been nearly so great, according to an October 2003 NAACP study. Initially, each network had just a handful of minority writers, although those numbers have improved significantly. In 1999, Fox, to cite the most extreme example, reported that just 5% of its writers were minorities; by 2002, that number was nearly 25%. The NAACP is collecting new statistics now.

“Things are getting better, and they'll continue to get better if we're vigilant,” says Bulluck. “We've definitely seen the body politic of America deal with race, but it's one step forward, two steps back.”

Now the NAACP wants to look at the cable networks, where pressure groups have had less clout, as the FCC is not involved in licensing. It vows to study TV news—not just who presents it but what is covered.

Additionally, the NAACP and other groups, such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), say their duty is to ensure all minorities are represented fairly in the media, not just the specific group each represents.

“There has been incremental change, for some groups more than others,” says Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the NHMC. “Native Americans continue to be completely invisible. When you talk about justice for your group, you want there to be justice for all groups.”

”HOT” BUT NOT

In recent years, Nogales has found media giants much more responsive now that Latinos represent 14% of U.S. consumer spending.

“There's a lot of action going on, a lot of excitement,” he says. “But people who want to get into the market don't know who to dance with. Are we hot? Yes, we're hot. Has there been a payoff? Not yet. There needs to be inclusion of Latinos from top to bottom in these organizations.”

All the minority organizations agree that the networks and studios would benefit by putting more people of color in decision-making positions. In front of the cameras, however, Bulluck and Nogales concur that, while there still aren't enough minorities in lead roles, Hollywood is doing a better job of casting them in a variety of parts, without regard to skin color.

“When I was a kid, we grew up watching The Cosby Show on Thursday nights,” says Rich Hall, a TV and movie producer. “We always thought of them as a family, not necessarily a black family. After that, TV tended toward programming that reinforced stereotypes. Now we're back in The Cosby Show format, and you are seeing black and Latino characters in all sorts of roles.”

That is a subtle but perhaps significant change. Blacks aren't always just cast in “black” roles. “There's an African-American president on 24, a black head of the CIA on Alias and a black head of the Navy on The West Wing,” Hall continues. “Just like in real life, you now see people who have gotten where they are not because they are black but because of who they are.”

A “SLOW CURVE”

As minority populations have increased in the U.S., so has the networks' willingness to cast minorities in important roles. But the changes aren't coming that quickly.

“It's a very slow-moving curve in prime time. The numbers hold going back as far as the '70s,” says Christy Glaubke, associate director of the children-and-media program at Children Now, which puts out a biennial report on diversity in prime time.

“But TV programs created specifically for children have done a fantastic job of creating diverse characters. Nearly every children's show has some diversity in their cast, and that's magnificent.”

And things are improving in prime time as well, producers say. John Wells is executive producer of NBC's ER, Third Watch and The West Wing, and Fox's Jonny Zero, shows that are particularly well-known for their diverse casts. And Nogales cites former ABC network President Alex Wallau for his commitment to the issue, which helped ensure diversity on Alias,Lost, Desperate Housewives and the now defunct Dragnet (on which Housewives' temptress Eva Longoria, a Latina actress, got her start).

“At the end of the day, executives are looking for something that is going to bring eyeballs to the network, regardless of the color of that character,” says Jorge Reyes, creator and executive producer of UPN's critically acclaimed Kevin Hill. Reyes originally wrote the show with a white lead but changed gears when African-American actor Taye Diggs expressed interest.

“I'm not the first minority producer to say this, but when a part is not specifically about being that color, that's the type of character minority actors and writers want to portray,” Reyes continues. “Hopefully, Kevin Hill has shown that you can do a show with an African-American lead that doesn't have to be about an African-American. It's just a human story.”

Getting more minorities cast in non-stereotypical TV roles, along with pushing Hollywood to hire qualified minorities, remains at the top of the NAACP's agenda.

“I think it's critical to the big picture,” says Bulluck. “I still think there are huge tracks in the U.S. and around the world where the only exposure people get to people of color or different cultures is through the media.”

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