Last month, Hollywood's two major actors' unions released a report saying something no one should have found very surprising:Young white males run the show. They are disproportionately depicted on TV, while women, minorities, older people, low-income people and the disabled are grossly under-represented.
But what does this really tell us? Only that television is a mirror. It reflects the values and perceptions dominant in the society. Young white males are favored in more places than just sitcoms and soaps.
But this does not excuse the role television plays in continuing to reinforce these inequities. Television has the ability (and many would say, responsibility) to do more than echo the prejudices around it.
Television can work to change the representation of women, minorities and the other underrepresented groups in two ways. One is to point up the problems in our world by contrasting them with an ideal world. These programs show us what life could be like.
"The Cosby Show" was both praised and condemned for showing us a world apparently without racial tensions or disadvantages based on race. "Star Trek" tries to depict a society in which national and racial barriers have fallen away. This utopian path, although well-intentioned, is a difficult one to walk, because it can be interpreted as a naive denial of the hard facts.
Other shows take an opposite approach. They take special pains to show it as it really is, warts and all, all its biases built in. "Roseanne," for example, has been tireless in depicting concerns of women and lower-income people by realistically portraying the problems they face. "Roc" has done an excellent job of taking white viewers into a black household and showing the challenges the family faces: some of their problems compounded by race, others not.
Ironically, highly realistic shows probably contribute to the imbalance of the figures chronicled in the recent report. "The Larry Sanders Show," set on and around a late-night talk show, is not going to depict a lot of women in leadership positions (although there is a female network executive on the show). But if they are scarce, it isn't because the writers of the show are being unfair to women, it is because the show-business world it depicts is unfair to women.
If television has a problem it is that too few shows take either of these approaches: utopian or realistic. It is easier to show middle-class white families who live supposedly in the same world we do but whose lives are untouched by any issues of inequality.
These shows, of course, are not villainous. In general they are populated by pleasant characters who harbor no discriminatory tendencies. But they could do so much more.
If television truly wants to be considered art, it needs to take up that role seriously and challenge some points of view, not just echo them.