The television networks recently announced their new fall lineups amid much fanfare. But I'm not dusting off the pompoms just yet ("And in This Corner . . . ," Calendar, May 23). There are going to be even fewer Latinos on prime-time television than last year. By the Census Bureau's count, the population of 30 million Latinos in the United States now easily outnumbers Canadians in Canada and has doubled since 1980. But according to prime-time television, we seem to be approaching extinction. Indeed, the Latino character getting the most air time right now is a taco-pushing Chihuahua.
Despite the fact that Spanish was the first European language spoken here, perhaps we're still perceived as foreigners in our own land. If we were perceived as true aliens, however, we might stand a better chance to see ourselves portrayed on TV. This fall, aliens of the non-Hispanic variety are scoring another addition to their lineup with UPN's "Mercy Point," a medical drama set in space ("ER--The Next Generation"?). This drama, along with "The X-Files," "Babylon 5," "3rd Rock From the Sun" and others, gives space creatures a more accepted place in our society than Latinos, if television is to be believed.
Positively surreal to me are the myriad shows set in New York and L.A. that do not have a single Latino character. These two cities together are home to more than 10 million Hispanic citizens (and a few dozen programming executives). Yet, in New York City, a town that is 20% Hispanic, television's "Friends" manages to have not one amigo. We did score two domestic roles on ABC this past season: "Ellen" had a Latina housekeeper (though she was fired for stealing), and the talented Lupe Ontiveros cleans "Veronica's Closet."
Even given the apparently limited number of roles, I was hoping the stories might become a little more diverse, to reflect the varied lives we live. Not this year, it seems. As it is, with Jimmy Smits' departure from "NYPD Blue" and the cancellation of "New York Undercover" and "Brooklyn South," it will be up to Benjamin Bratt ("Law & Order") and Jon Seda ("Homicide: Life on the Street") to duke it out for Leading Latino Cop in a Dramatic Series this fall. Some would say I should be comforted by the fact that we have our own Spanish-language networks, despite the fact that most of their programming originates in Latin America and is not terribly relevant to my life. By that logic, one could argue that Black Entertainment Television precludes the need for African Americans to be seen on NBC.
After all, it is important for non-Latinos to see us on TV as well. There is no doubt that television images are influential in shaping not only what we see of ourselves, but what others see of us as well. Beginning with Dr. Kenneth Clarke's pioneering work, we have long known that media images shape our views of one another, particularly in regard to race. Recently, the Children Now foundation released a study that showed dramatic differences between the perceptions of minorities and whites among young people that highlights this point dramatically. Researchers learned that for teenagers in this country, white characters are five times more likely than minority characters to be perceived as figures who "[have] lots of money" and "[are] well-educated." Conversely, minority characters are six times more likely than their white counterparts to be perceived as "breaking the law or the rules" and "having a harder time financially."
However, I concede that doing the right thing is rarely among the objectives of a network programmer. But, why then, isn't anyone doing it for the dinero? Apparently, no one is interested in our money yet--despite the fact that we are poised to be the nation's largest minority group in approximately 15 minutes and that we are, on average, eight years younger than the general market and more likely to have larger families. (As my mother is quick to point out, at 29, I am the oldest childless Hispanic woman she knows.) In sum, with all of these viewers in the coveted 18-49 demographic, we should be the subject of intense advertiser interest at this point.
Furthermore, 18 of the 20 biggest advertiser spending categories in prime time are in the areas where we consume more than our share of goods and services. For example, I've heard it said that Latinas don't go gray, they go red. This might explain the fact that we use four times the hair coloring products that our non-Hispanic counterparts do. Hair coloring advertisers alone spent some $90 million last year in prime-time television. We are just 11% of the United States, but are consuming close to 20% of the cola, 20% of the long distance, 16% of the lipstick and 25% of the diapers. We also make up 40% of the population of Los Angeles, the largest auto market in the United States. Consequently, if advertisers are able to reach a few more brown eyes, they would reach a new and more attractive consumer.
There are two key audiences in this country, Latinos and advertisers, who should be interested to see more Garcias and Rodriguezes on their Trinitrons. Now if we can just find a network with the guts to step up to the plate.