January/February 2000

Anything but Racism

Media make excuses for "whitewashed" TV lineup

By Janine Jackson

Confronted by protests from the NAACP and others about discrimination in their primetime lineup, the four leading TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) did what powerful institutions often do in such situations: They feigned affront, denied the facts, made excuses and attacked the messenger, then offered patchwork "solutions" and returned to business as usual.

The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume denounced the big four's slate of 26 new primetime shows, none of which feature people of color in lead roles, as a "virtual whitewash in programming," and was immediately echoed by such groups as the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans. The initial official reaction was upbeat and bland: CBS said that "the issue raised by the NAACP was extremely important," while NBC claimed that "including minorities on the air is an issue that has been a top priority for some time and it continues to remain an important priority." (All Things Considered, 7/28/99)

Asked to comment, individual executives sounded variously defiant: "We want to put on the best shows possible, and I don't care if the casts are blue, green, yellow or orange," declared Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7/28/99). Or hapless: "When you get into picking your pilots and casting...sometimes in the speed of that you don't recognize the larger picture," explained ABC Entertainment co-chair Stu Bloomberg (Plain Dealer, 8/15/99). Or just surly, like the unnamed exec who told Entertainment Weekly (7/30/99): "It's become a no-win proposition. Unless you're putting on an hour-long show about a black brain surgeon helping Third World children, you're insulting the race."

No more serious engagement of the issue was discernible from the networks' news coverage. ABC and CBS gave the protests brief nods (7/12/99) on the nightly news, but the story was otherwise relegated to a scattering of mentions on morning shows. Among the more in-depth of these was a July 13, 1999 Good Morning America, in which host Diane Sawyer gave Mfume approximately four minutes to combine discussion of the NAACP's TV protests with the group's campaign against gun sales.

Counting the wrong thing

If dismissiveness was the predominant tack, a more combative industry response to charges of minority underrepresentation was to say that protesters suffered from a narrow view; if they had only counted something else, the true diversity and fairness of the industry would have shone through. Numerous executives pointed to individual people of color who had succeeded (virtually always Bill Cosby), or individual directors who have made successful interracial shows (virtually always Steven Bochco), as if these exceptions disproved the rule. CBS's Leslie Moonves seemed the most confused: "It's not fair that our network, which features Bill Cosby in two shows, Ed Bradley, Bryant Gumbel, Della Reese, Cheech Marin, Arsenio Hall and Sammo Hung, be accused of not recognizing the minority audience," he complained (Boston Herald, 7/27/99).

Others said the NAACP was wrong to exclude those who "lend strong dramatic support to white leads" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7/28/99). Or that, to be fair, they really should have included everyone appearing on all of television: "If you look at daytime, cable, syndication, public television," explains CBS writer-producer Lee Goldberg (Plain Dealer, 8/15/99), "there's incredible diversity."

Of course, no one denies that the roster of leading roles in the new season's lineup is just a snapshot of the TV industry. It is, however, a meaningful picture. Network primetime still attracts biggest number of viewers, and as a result, the largest amount of ad dollars (Plain Dealer, 8/15/99). Why shouldn't it be subject to scrutiny?

And there's no shortage of other evidence of imbalance. Against Moonves poignant claim to "Bill Cosby in two shows" stand numerous indicators of the overall underrepresentation of blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans in television writing, acting and producing jobs.

A survey by the NAACP's Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter found that of 839 writers currently working on primetime shows, just 55 are black, 11 Latino, three Asian-American and none Native American, meaning minorities make up just 7 percent of primetime network writers.

According to the Screen Actors Guild, the number of primetime parts for blacks and Latinos declined in 1998, with blacks filling around 12 percent, and Latinos just 3 percent. Asian-Americans represented a little more than 1 percent of parts on primetime shows.

A 1998 Directors Guild of America report showed that minority (and women) directors (in TV and film) worked fewer days in 1997 than the year before, despite an increase in work for directors overall (L.A. Daily News, 7/17/98).

As for the executive ranks, an investigation by Entertainment Weekly (which has done exceptional reporting on this issue) found only a handful of minorities in television's corridors of power, including Scott Sassa, the Asian-American head of NBC West Coast. (Sassa, along with Cosby and Bochco, is frequently offered as proof that diversity's on the march in TVdom, despite his own comments to the contrary.) Notes Entertainment Weekly (10/18/99), "These are the exceptions, and most of the creative executives come from the cable side," not from broadcasting.

Such numbers are valuable indicators. But the executives are right that numbers don't completely capture racism's complex nature. Discrimination, for example, also takes the form of segregation. The vast majority (83 percent) of the 55 African-American primetime writers worked on shows with primarily black casts. "White writers, however, routinely make the crossover to write on shows with predominantly minority casts," as the Los Angeles Times observed (10/27/99). CBS has 144 writers; the two that are black both work on Cosby.

And of course there are countless anecdotal examples that suggest pervasive problems. Like Jay Dyer, the successful African-American writer whose agent was told flatly: "This isn't a black show. We don't need a black writer." (Entertainment Weekly, 7/30/99) Or the casting director who wasn't satisfied that auditioning actor Garrett Wang was doing a "Japanese accent" until "I took the most exaggerated Cantonese-Chinese accent, you know... 'Oh I give you two free egg roll if you bring laundry into my store.'… And she said, 'That's it. That's the one.'" (All Things Considered, 10/27/99)

Black, Latino, Asian-American and Native American actors cite the frustration of being considered only for "specifically ethnic" roles, the countless opportunities they miss because of someone's parochial idea of what a "neighbor" or a "bank teller" should look like (see, e.g., Hollywood Reporter, 9/14/1999). On the flip side, minority writers say they can only get started in the business by avoiding issues relating to ethnicity: "If you do a spec script for a white show with white characters, at least you'll get a foot in," writer Daryl Nickens told the Chicago Tribune (8/8/93).

The misunderstanding of the systemic, institutional nature of discrimination was also reflected in the scramble by some of the networks to "tack on" token minority characters to existing shows later in the season. "What we keep hearing," explained Milwaukee Journal Sentinel TV critic Joanne Weintraub (All Things Considered, 7/28/99), "is, 'Oh we didn't have any black people or brown people in our pilot, but wait'll you see episode four. We're going to introduce Steve and he's black, and he's going to interact like mad with all the white people.' Sometimes it sounds just that silly."

Not black and white, just green

Even as they more or less acknowledged a hiring system built overwhelmingly on personal networks, the relative absence of minorities in executive roles, and a stubbornly stereotypical approach to casting, the media industry argument in the wake of complaints had a tone best described as, "It's not racism; it's...." That blank was filled various ways, but the hands-down most popular was "it's economics."

"This year's lily-white TV season isn't about racism. It's about ratings. For the networks, diversity just doesn't pay," says the Fort Worth Star Telegram (9/5/99). "Remember that TV is all about numbers," the Orlando Sentinel explained (9/12/99) in a story headlined "Advertisers, Not Networks, Influence the Minority Roles on TV." "Shows succeed--and more often, fail--on ratings. The higher the ratings, the more attractive a show becomes to advertisers. More advertisers equals more money--and a hit show." "Blame Demographics," counsels the Indianapolis Star (7/15/99): "The big networks shoot for the bigger slice of the pie--the 70 percent of viewers who are white." Diane Sawyer (Good Morning America, 7/13/99) summed it up in a question to Kweisi Mfume: "They do go where the money is. So if there were money in it, they would go there. Can you blame them for doing basically what they're constituted to do, which is [be] a network that makes money?"

It's somewhat noteworthy to see media acknowledge the powerful role sponsors play in the content of programming. But this "economics, stupid" line, which pretends to be a dry-eyed, straight-up look at things, actually stops short of the whole story.

The WB's Felicity draws similar numbers of 18-to-49 year-olds as the net's two highest-rated black series, the Steve Harvey Show and the Jamie Foxx Show. But last season, Felicity commanded more than twice as much money per 30-second commercial than either show ($80,000 vs. less than $40,000). In the first week of the new season, The Steve Harvey Show pulled in 500,000 more viewers than Dawson's Creek; but Dawson's Creek gets $63,000 more for a 30-second spot. (All Things Considered, 10/17/99) How can that be simple ratings?

The fact is "economics" do not explain the disparate treatment of white and non-white audiences by sponsors, and consequently by programmers. Advertisers pay less for programs that garner non-white audiences, in a widely acknowledged policy called "discounting." Some flatly refuse to buy ads on stations or shows that reach primarily non-white audiences, the so-called "no urban/no Spanish dictate."

Such policies are not based in "market sense." When Emmis Broadcasting, operators of a New York radio station with a primarily black listenership, approached their local Volvo dealers group about buying ads, they supplied market research showing that "their black/urban listeners were just as able and likely to buy cars in Volvo's price range as the radio audiences Volvo dealers were currently paying to reach, suburban whites." (Forum Connection, Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, 9/30/99) The company couldn't deny the facts, but said no anyway. What it came down to, according to station manager Judith Ellis, "was the head of the dealership who said, 'I just don't want to. We just don't want it on that radio station.'"

Last year, an internal memo from media representation firm Katz Media Group came to light, in which the company advised its sales staff not to place ads on so-called "urban" stations, explaining that businesses want "prospects, not suspects." (Black Enterprise, 7/31/99)

The FCC has collected plenty of such evidence, illustrating a range of racist assumptions about non-white customers openly cited by advertisers as reasons to pay less for ads in ethnic markets, or not to buy them at all. There's the buyer for Ivory soap who refused to purchase time on a Latino-formatted station because "Hispanics don't bathe as frequently as non-Hispanics." (FCC study, "When Being No. 1 Is Not Enough: The Impact of Advertising Practices on Minority-Formatted Broadcast Stations," 1/99) Companies have cited worries that "our pilferage will increase," if they advertise on minority stations, or said simply, "Your station will bring too many black people to my place of business." If that's not racism, what is?

Yet mainstream media consistently sought out ways to explain this situation while emphatically maintaining that it wasn't discrimination. Often the disconnect between a show's ratings and its ad rates was actively obscured, in constructions like this from USA Today (7/20/99): "Privately, network executives say their lack of interest in black shows reflects simple economics. Recent black shows haven't reached the young, upscale viewers who translate into success, as measured by Nielsen ratings, premium ad prices and syndications revenue."

Or race and class were simply collapsed together without explanation (Virginian-Pilot, 8/31/99): "Others say the parade of new shows with young white casts isn't about racism. It's about economics. It's about attracting the hard-to-get audience of white 18- to-34 year olds with vast buying power—-the Felicity crowd."

"Is TV's Racism Black and White or Just Green?" asked the popular framing (Plain Dealer headline, 8/15/99). The phrasing points up the obscurantism permeating media coverage--coverage that left unclear whether TV's racist practices were being denied, or just excused on the grounds that they are making some people very wealthy.

That may be the most disconcerting aspect of the media response to the NAACP protests: the way that, having stumbled upon the open secret of the media world—-that, platitudes aside, its commercialism fundamentally impedes its democratic and creative promise—-journalists carefully tip-toed away.