Small steps for minorities

Multiethnic coalition cites some gains for minorities but nearly equal losses

Converging at a press conference six months after NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX signed agreements guaranteeing they would fill their ranks with more minorities, a multiethnic coalition assessed the Big 4's performance again last week. Not one got high marks.

The networks took some steps forward (the NAACP reported a hike in the number of African-Americans in TV this new fall season), but, according to the coalition, they took just as many steps back.

"Some progress has been made..African-Americans have enjoyed better access to on-air and production positions," said NAACP representative Debbie Liu. "However, I say this with guarded caution, given the appalling lack of progress of every network to measurably further opportunities for Asian Pacific Americans, Latinos and Native Americans." Liu added, "We have a long, long way to go."

On the upside, NBC can boast a 14% surge in black on-air talent, CBS has new shows

The District

with African-American lead actors, the hero on Fox's
Boston Public

(Chi McBride) is African-American and ABC's
Gideon's Crossing

features seven black actors in featured roles.

Troubling to the coalition is that there are fewer Asian Pacific American cast as regulars than last year, mainly because CBS canceled
Martial Law
, starring Sammo Hung, and compounded by the fact that there are no rookie series that include Asians in significant roles.

Also, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition is urging advertisers to stop supporting FOX sketch comedy series

because of its character, Ms. Swan. Although played by non-Asian Alex Borstein, "Ms. Swan is clearly intended to be Asian. And by making fun of the way she talks,
Mad TV

just mocks her ethnicity," said Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, who has met with FOX executives but hasn't gotten far with his protests.

Latina actress Jessica Alba headlines Fox's
Dark Angel
, but for the most part, "this season is an unqualified disappointment for the Latino community," noted Raul Yzaguirre, the National Latino Media Council's spokesman. And currently, no Native Americans have landed big acting or production gigs on this fall's new regular series.

The WB and UPN, working with smaller budgets, have so far been spared major criticism, and clearly, the Big 4 thought last week's grade didn't give the whole story.

The networks are getting a litle time to improve, in part, because two executives, ABC's John Rose and Fox's Mitsy Wilson, hired to direct their networks' diversity efforts are just getting started in their news posts. Moreover, it's going to take more than six months to move some diversity initiatives through the pipeline.

"Diversity remains an important initiative at ABC, and we have had significant progress, but we agree that more needs to be done," says Rose, who is proud of jump-starting a talent development program to "nurture and support minority writers, directors and filmmakers."

CBS' Josie Thomas and NBC's Paula Madison have had more time, and the coalition was that much tougher on NBC and CBS.

In giving CBS an "F," Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium said that "despite the emphatic promises by Les Moonves [CBS Television chief], the prime time exclusion of Asian Pacific Americans at CBS is worse this year than the whitewash of last year. The good news is that they doubled the number of Asian writers-but that wasn't hard since they had only one last year."

None of the other ethnic groups gave grades.

Narasaki handed "D" grades to the other three; her best mark, a "D+," went to NBC. No Asian Pacific American stars in prime time, but this fall NBC added two shows with significant Asian roles (now-canceled

featured Christina Chang,

includes Lauren Tom).

Even so, Madison and Thomas want to pass with flying colors. "We are very aware of the need to bring diversity into our ranks," said Madison. "We'll continue to work on that. But this is not an easy progression."

Said Thomas: "We recognize that there are areas where we need to redouble our efforts and we intend to continue our ongoing talks with the coalition."

NBC's Madison believes more blacks than other minorities have entered entertainment-geared learning programs and are further in "the pipeline" toward jobs in the TV industry. To spark the interests' of others, Madison has kick-started an NBC internship program for students at two Native American reservations in South Dakota.

"Right now, we have about 500 interns at NBC, but no Native Americans in that group," said Madison. "So by going to their colleges, we'll get them excited about TV.and after a reasonable amount of time, hope to have a robust number of Native Americans in our TV work force."

This summer, NBC will sponsor workshops that will coach minorities on how to become TV writers and will "introduce minority voices into prime time television," Madison added.

NBC Studios President Ted Harbert will steer a session for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in Orlando. And Garth Ancier, the network's entertainment head, will teach a program in Phoenix for the Association of Black Journalists.

CBS has held outreach events at the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America, spreading the word that Hollywood's studio community should consider hiring more minority talent.

Coalition members realize that their gripes with the networks are just battles in their larger war to achieve more diversity. The next phase of the group's negotiations is to go after talent agencies, studios and advertising agencies, encouraging them to approve initiatives similar to the networks.'