Networks Decide Diversity Doesn’t Pay
A splashy magazine ad for ABC recently boasted that the network offers “the broadest range of programming” on television. The ad features 10 of the network’s biggest stars--and not a single black, Latino or Asian face among them.
ABC is not alone. In 26 new prime-time shows slated to debut on the four major networks this fall, every lead character and nearly all the cast regulars will be white, even those on shows where the action takes place in urban high schools and New York City nightspots.
After years of promises by network executives to make prime-time television look more like America, what’s going on?
Industry sources say the answer boils down to a harsh economic equation: There’s not enough money in diversity to make it a priority.
As the country turns more diverse, TV viewers are becoming more racially fragmented--choosing to watch shows with characters that look like they do. And networks, seeking to preserve a dwindling share of audience, one that gets siphoned away by cable and the Internet, have chosen to aim squarely at the target they hope will offer the biggest economic return--delivering to advertisers as many young, white viewers as they can.
There is little to indicate the economic imperatives for networks will change any time soon. Whites are still projected by the Census Bureau to account for more than 70% of the population between the ages of 18 and 54--the broad demographic coveted by media buyers--in 2000. That share is forecast to drop just slightly, to 67%, by 2010.
Few television executives, however, look even that far ahead. Broadcasting has become a present-tense business. What counts are the ratings a show posts this week, and how the network fares in monthlong “sweeps” periods conducted three times a year. Facing a complex, uncertain future, network programmers often don’t get more than a couple years to get it right.
The lack of diversity in new programs has set off shock waves because of the unique place broadcast TV occupies in American society. Distributed free to 99% of the nation’s living rooms, the medium has historically had the ability like no other to reflect and shape America by creating shared experiences--serving as not just entertainment, but social instrument.
Director-actor Edward James Olmos, who has spent the last four years trying to develop TV programs for ABC, said the lack of diversity in this year’s lineup marks a watershed event.
“When you look at this season, no one needs to say anything more,” he said. “If I were in the hierarchy of any of these networks, I would hang my head in shame for the rest of my life.”
The NAACP has denounced the networks and threatened to sue, and a local coalition of minority-based entertainment groups also expects to outline a plan of attack targeting the networks today.
Olmos, and many other critics, say the problem is primarily institutional and financially motivated, not overt racism. “This was not done with malice,” he said. “There was no understanding that this was happening, and that’s the real problem.”
The news is not all bleak. Some producers have figured out how to make diversity work, and in the process they are redefining how the TV industry thinks of the issue. CBS’ “Touched by an Angel,” which has a black star and a white star, fares well with both ethnic groups and is one of TV’s highest-rated shows; likewise, ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and NBC’s “ER” have multiethnic casts and are popular across the board.
“It’s always in the front of my mind,” said Steven Bochco, veteran producer of such landmark series as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue,” all of which had diverse casts. “I grew up in a multiracial environment. It’s part of my consciousness. That’s what neighborhoods and cities are like.”
A Fragmented Audience
Without such conscious action, however, the trend has been slipping the opposite way. Shows starring minorities have been marginalized, being pushed to smaller networks. Although ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses told TV critics a year ago that the network wanted to be “inclusive,” only two of the 25 prototypes ABC ordered as new series candidates for the upcoming season featured a minority lead, and neither made its schedule. NBC and Fox produced no pilots with ethnic leads.
CBS, the most watched network among both blacks and whites, did order a few pilots starring minorities and will premiere a new show featuring a predominantly minority cast, Bochco’s “City of Angels,” early next year.
Talent manager Delores Robinson said network executives should own up to the fact that they don’t think casting minorities in television series is important to their bottom line.
“For God’s sake, don’t pretend you care about people and minorities,” said Robinson, who is also a producer. “That is not where their heads are at. They should just say outright, ‘We don’t see minorities as a profitable business.’
“It’s just like it used to be in the South. The South had the ‘For Whites Only’ signs. When the signs came down, the prejudice was still going on. So the networks should just put up the signs, so we know what’s going on.”
Why don’t more producers and the networks make more of an effort? They say they are making an effort, but interviews with more than 80 industry sources--including many past and present decision-makers who determine what programs get on the air--paint a more complex picture of why there has been so little progress.
Getting a TV show on the air typically is a yearlong process, one in which producers and studios pitch ideas for programs, with networks sifting through dozens of candidates before choosing a handful to make their debut each September. Advertisers then guess which shows will galvanize audiences, buying commercial time accordingly.
So where, in the stated quest for diversity, is the ball being dropped? Program suppliers blame networks, while network executives past and present point fingers at advertisers, writers and producers. Others say changing audience tastes, short-sighted corporate thinking and the narrow tastes of international broadcasters share responsibility.
Some of the most pointed critics say the demographics of the industry itself cannot be overlooked. Most top-level executives and the most successful writers live in predominantly white enclaves on the Westside, places like Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Malibu.
Some wonder if the city’s segregated, commuter culture has at least a subtle effect on programming. As one former network president said of the lifestyle within the entertainment industry: “Most don’t go east of La Brea unless they’re going to the Oscars.”
The television industry’s profile has allowed at least one minority group, gays and lesbians, to actually flourish. Some say this is because gays are disproportionately represented within the industry, allowing many program creators to feel more comfortable writing gay characters than ethnic minorities.
Holding Up a Mirror
Still, some insiders maintain that the real cause of minorities being marginalized has to do simply with audience tastes. Just a decade ago, industry executives say, white viewers were much more willing to watch shows that featured predominantly African American casts. NBC’s mega-hit “The Cosby Show” was the clearest proof, but in the mid-1970s, series starring minorities such as “Sanford and Son,” “Chico and the Man” and “Good Times” all ranked among prime time’s Top 10 most-watched shows.
Not so today. Don Ohlmeyer, the former head of NBC’s West Coast operation, has called it the “Balkanization” of television, with viewers gradually dispersing to watch programs designed for them. In 1995, 19 prime-time programs averaged more than 20 million viewers each week. During the recently concluded TV season, only four shows had an audience that large--and all of them air Thursdays on NBC.
Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels, the boom in fare for every obscure interest and the popularity of micro-niche Web sites, consumers have become spoiled. It can’t be “Must-See TV,” it seems, if it’s not “All-About-ME TV.”
“Without any question, viewers today have a lower tolerance and are not crossing over as much as before,” said one veteran programming executive.
Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, director of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, suggests another reason: Past black-oriented sitcoms such as “The Cosby Show,” “The Jeffersons,” “That’s My Mama,” and “A Different World” had a quality of writing and tone that crossed over to a mass audience. Current African American sitcoms, he said, have more of a specific tone that targets blacks. “White America got tired of black sitcoms after ‘Cosby’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ ”
This evaporation of crossover viewing can be seen in Nielsen Media Research data for the fourth quarter of 1998. The top-rated show in African American homes, the WB’s family sitcom “Steve Harvey Show,” ranked 127th among whites, according to a study by TN Media Inc. “Friends,” the top-rated sitcom overall, ranked just 88th in black households, and seventh among Latinos.
Given this trend, the lexicon of diversity is changing. Networks can’t afford to alienate whites, who make up the vast majority of potential viewers, and remain the ones advertisers privately concede they want most. “There’s that idea that you can have a very strong black character or a black subplot running, but it has to be a white person bringing you to the world,” said Paul Aaron, who in 1994 co-created “Under One Roof,” a short-lived CBS drama that focused on a black family.
Still, the lack of integration in this year’s new shows--in settings that would normally be diverse, such as the west wing of the White House--left even people who work within the TV industry grasping for an explanation.
“The entire broadcast industry has a responsibility to make sure there’s diversified programming on the air, and this year, as a group, we came up short,” said Garry Hart, president of Paramount’s TV production arm. “We’ve got to do better next year, and anyone who feels otherwise is wrong.”
Despite the ideal--that talent alone should determine casting decisions--the understanding among producers, most of whom are white, is that “unless it’s stated otherwise, it’s assumed the character is white,” said one executive. Those sorts of institutionalized practices mean that colorblind casting seldom happens.
“It’s completely the function of most of the writers and executive producers being white men,” said Paris Barclay, an Emmy-winning director on “NYPD Blue.” “This kind of thing makes me crazy. You can make any role a minority. There are so many choices.”
Channeling the Viewers
Because of cable TV, all viewers from children to golf enthusiasts can now watch shows and channels more narrowly directed at them. And African Americans as a group watch far more television than whites. Black households average just over 70 hours of television per week, according to TN Media’s study, versus about 50 hours for nonblack households. The gap was widest in late-night hours, but even in prime time, black households still watched 9% more television than nonblack homes.
This trend can be exploited by a new network looking to quickly build an audience, such as Fox did in its early days, or the WB and UPN networks are doing today. When Fox stumbled onto the hit sketch comedy series “In Living Color” in 1990, featuring a mostly black cast of young comedy players, the fledgling network used it as a springboard to launch other black programs and saw its ratings soar with black viewers. In similar fashion, UPN and WB are getting their start with nights consisting of shows with blacks in starring roles.
“For a smaller network, it’s a real important piece of business,” said Jamie Kellner, who ran Fox a decade ago and is now chief executive of the WB. But, he added, “it’s not the biggest business,” meaning that when a network gets established, it needs a bigger audience than it can get by appealing mainly to blacks.
Under the convoluted logic that drives TV ad rates, because blacks watch more TV, advertisers won’t pay networks as much for that audience, since they are easier to reach. It is the same argument that advertisers use to explain why viewers older than 50 aren’t considered when negotiating ad rates.
Because of the clout advertisers wield, some say programmers are simply trying to give the buyers what they want.
“If the advertisers said tomorrow ‘I want all ethnically skewed programming, I don’t care who’s working [at the networks],’ they’re going to provide it,” said one former network chief. “If the advertisers wanted it, it would get done.”
While a few advertisers target their messages toward ethnic groups, many more merely look for age groups, trying to throw darts into the biggest moving target they can find. Advertisers are colorblind, said Paul Schulman, whose Schulman/Advanswers NY agency is one of the largest buyers of network ad time. “If it delivers [viewers age] 18 to 49, count them in; if it doesn’t, count them out,” he said.
In fact, as the viewing audience fragments, advertisers increasingly chase an even smaller group: hip teenagers and 18-to-34-year-olds with years of buying power ahead of them, who watch less television, making it harder to get a message out to them. During the selling of ad time for the upcoming 1999-2000 season, the WB--which aims its shows at such viewers--saw sales explode by about 50%, to $450 million. Even network officials were surprised by the ferocity with which media buyers snapped up commercial time in WB shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and the new “Popular,” which feature a coterie of young, attractive, mostly white casts.
TV’s writer/producers concede they’re more likely to create characters and stories drawn from their own experiences. Casting executives who try to find ethnic actors say they are often hamstrung by creative limitations. “I’ve had [white] producers say to me, ‘I just don’t know how to write black,’ ” said Marc Hirschfeld, executive vice president of casting at NBC.
Rapid turnover in executive suites has taken its toll. Only one executive in charge of entertainment at the four major networks, CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, has served in that capacity more than four years.
As a result, promises made “to do better” by one regime are easily abandoned by the next in the chase for ratings. In 1997, then-NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield mandated that all shows seek to integrate their casts; still, he left NBC last year, and none of the network’s new shows for this fall feature ethnic lead characters.
With their ratings declining, and only NBC turning a profit last year from its network operation, executives have little incentive to take risks. Indeed, there is seldom room for social concerns in a business often driven less by a pursuit of excellence than a fear of failure.
Some industry sources say that if the networks truly want to achieve more programming diversity, they must begin by better integrating their executive ranks. Women have made vast strides in recent years, as networks realized what a mistake it was to have no females making decisions about programming, although network prime-time audiences are 60% female, said the WB’s Kellner.
Few minorities, however, have managed to penetrate into management, and the road to such positions in the entertainment industry actually dissuades them from entering. Most beginning-level jobs pay relatively little and require connections to get through the door. As a result, many top industry executives are the sons and daughters of those who previously held similar jobs, who possess not only high-placed contacts but the resources to endure $400-a-week jobs that start them off in the same room with the power-brokers.
“Does it affect development? Possibly . . . but I think our executives are very aware of minority representation,” said CBS’s Moonves.
Given the tenuous nature of top TV jobs, executives repeatedly turn to writers and producers of hit shows hoping they can replicate past successes. While such creative talent wields influence, producers note that networks remain the final gatekeepers of what gets on the air.
“Television development emanates from the networks,” said Jerry Isenberg, chairman of the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors. “If the networks declared that [they] want series about three-headed Martians, that’s what we would write, because that’s what would sell.”
With the rash of unfavorable stories about the color of the fall shows, many network executives have quietly gone to their producers and asked them to make an effort to add ethnic cast members.
Even so, the issues raised by the programming choices the networks made this spring seem unlikely to soon fade. As Edward James Olmos put it: “No one will ever forget the television season of 1999.”
Times staff writer Paul Brownfield contributed to this story.
Next: How gay and lesbian characters have broken through the diversity barrier.
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Top Shows by Race
Below are white viewers’ favorite shows and how they rank with black and Latino audiences. The only show in the top 10 for all three groups is Monday Night Football.
Whites’ Favorite Shows Blacks Latinos 1. ER (NBC) 15 6 2. Friends (NBC) 88 7 3. Frasier (NBC) 90 12 4. Veronica’s Closet (NBC) 81 16 5. Jesse (NBC) 104 13 6. Monday Night Football (ABC) 3 3 7. NYPD Blue (ABC) 17 31 8. Touched by an Angel (CBS) 6 27 8. (tie) 60 Minutes (CBS) 7 39 10. CBS Sunday Night Movie 5 20
Blacks’ Favorite Shows
1. Steve Harvey Show (WB)
2. Jamie Foxx Show (WB)
3. Monday Night Football (ABC)
4. For Your Love (WB)
5. CBS Sunday Night Movie
6. Touched by an Angel (CBS)
7. 60 Minutes (CBS)
8. Moesha (UPN)
9. Walker Texas Ranger (CBS)
10. Wayans Bros. (WB)
Latinos’ Favorite Shows
1. Guinness World Records (Fox)
2. Wildest Police Videos (Fox)
3. Monday Night Football (ABC)
4. Simpsons (Fox)
5. Sabrina--Teenage Witch (ABC)
6. ER (NBC)
7. Friends (NBC)
8. Wonderful World of Disney (ABC)
9. X-Files (Fox)
10. Boy Meets World (ABC)
Note: 4th quarter of 1998; includes only prime-time network shows
Source: TN Media Inc.