Jewish World Review March 18, 2003 / 14 Adar II 5763
Viewers beware when tv networks don't care
In moments of short tempers and high sarcasm years ago when I was a television news reporter, my crews and I used to call for a reality check with a standard expression: Don't take it seriously; it's only television.
I keep repeating that phrase to myself as I look at the report cards that various research and interest groups produce about prime-time entertainment on the six major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN and WB.
It's no big scoop that TV entertainment is mostly about fantasy and escape. That's what most people want when they kick off their shoes to watch the tube at night.
Still, television is also a powerful educational medium. Advertisers certainly think so and put serious money behind it. Should the boob tube's potential to influence, persuade and inform be taken more seriously by the rest of us, too?
That's the big question raised by "Watch Out, Listen Up," the National Organization of Women Foundation's third annual "Feminist Primetime Report" (on the Web at www.nowfoundation.org).
The America the NOWF sees depicted on TV tells us a lot about the planet that network programmers and TV viewers wish they lived on.
Call it "Planet TV." It's a place where the average, likeable, workaday, dog-faced guy can still the heart of a hot-looking babe because she, being the sensible one, appreciates his mind more than his looks.
It's a place where all the female heroes are strong, brave, young and trim and kick lots of serious butt, yet aren't above using their sex appeal to get ahead sometimes (examples: "Alias, Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dark Angel," "Charmed," "WWE Smackdown!").
Yet, more often than not, they still answer to male authority figures. So it's OK, guys. There's no need for you to feel too threatened.
Magic lives on TV. Planet TV is a place so filled with magic people (as some of the above-listed titles suggest) that you're more likely to encounter a witch, an angel or a space alien than a person with an ordinary physical disability of some kind.
Similar observations have come out of "Prime Time in Black and White," a five-year study by UCLA's Center for African American Studies.
Remember how civil rights groups threatened to boycott network TV three years ago over the lack of prominent roles for nonwhite performers? Since then, UCLA's Darnell Hunt finds, there are more blacks in the TV season that began last fall, but they still tend to be "ghettoized" by genre, time slot or channel.
Almost 40 percent of all black characters appeared in situation comedies, for example, compared to 31 percent of whites. Saturday nights, which have the smallest audiences, were the biggest nights for black casting and at one channel, the UPN network, 28 percent of the regular roles were held by African Americans, more than twice the average on other networks.
Yes, there are lots of black people on Planet TV and most of them are hilarious.
But, whatever you do, don't talk about it. Planet TV tends to be amazingly free of talk about race. Even on Fox's thriller series "24," in which the president of the United States is black, hardly anyone ever makes reference to that little fact, not even the black people.
To me, as a black fan of "24," the characters on the show are black people created in a factory by white people. In my experience, white Americans tend to be reluctant to talk about race, while black Americans can't seem to stop talking about race.
But, that's only real life.
Besides, as narrowly as blacks are depicted on the tube, the variety of Latino, Asian-American or Native American life in America is dramatized even less.
Representing about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, self-identified Latinos outnumber self-identified blacks (12 percent) in the latest census. Yet, Latinos make up only 2 percent of the Planet TV population, the UCLA study found. Asian Americans (3.6 percent of the U.S. population) did slightly better at 2.8 percent of TV characters.
And American Indians, representing about 1 percent of the population, came up zero, virtually "invisible" on Planet TV. The TV image of American Indians has come a long way since the days of Tonto, but in the wrong direction.
Maybe they're lucky. The highest-profile Latino-cast show this season is "Kingpin," which airs on NBC, Bravo and the Spanish-language Telemundo networks. It's a show about a drug lord family written by two-time Emmy winner David Mills, an African American.
This has kicked off a familiar debate among nonwhite TV folks. Sure, "Kingpin" deals in stereotypes, but you have to reach a mainstream audience, they say. After all, this is show business, with the accent on the "business." Unfortunately, that appeal to mainstream audiences too often means appealing to mainstream prejudices.
Someday, we can all hope, the market will mature and we will see the rich diversity of this country's people depicted a bit more completely on primetime TV.
Until then, viewers, beware. It's only television. Don't take it seriously.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on Clarence Page's column by clicking here.
03/14/03: Powell's battle for Bush's ear
03/10/03: 'Embedded,' but not 'in bed with'
02/28/03: Bridging the black gender gap
02/19/03 Braun vs. Sharpton: A Dem dilemma
02/14/03: Bush's clean-up man
02/11/03: How feds fooled marijuana trial jurors
02/06/03: Time to re-think space shuttle's value
01/31/03: Why corporations like diversity, too
01/28/03: Shaq vs. Yao, a new world diss-order
01/23/03: Affirmative action will be remarketed under new name
01/13/03: Bond movie offers clues to Korea crisis
01/07/03: Dr. Frist to the rescue … of his party
01/02/03: Feeling a 'draft,' but not much
12/17/02: To rob a burning cross of its power
12/03/02: Closing black-white test-score gaps
11/19/02: Uncle Same wants your data
11/15/02: Marriage vs. 'player' impulse
11/11/02: How Oz can help the Dems
11/05/02: We reserve right to be complicated
10/22/02: What the pro-gun lobby and anti-gun lobby have in common
10/18/02: Take Sharpton seriously? For Prez??
10/15/02: A beauty and the bullies
10/08/02: Time to start 'fingerprinting' bullets
10/08/02: Poet laureate hater fell for Internet hoax
10/04/02: Keeping it real, despite howls from black 'leaders'
10/01/02: Revisiting the 'Jogger' horror
09/27/02: Sometimes freedom is a necessary nuisance
09/13/02: Foil Fidel with free trade
09/10/02: Measuring the myth of 'super weed'
09/06/02: A year later: A reality-check
09/03/02: Make better choices before some jury somewhere does
08/20/02: Bid farewell to the Cigarette Century
08/16/02: Rights matter, even in circus trials
08/09/02: Jousting with Rumsfeld's fog of wit
08/06/02: Covert action is cool again
08/01/02: Powell's premature obituaries
07/30/02: A common sense tip on internal snooping
07/18/02: Jacko plays race card badly
07/12/02: Last flight for a pioneer airman
07/08/02: Dems will miss Watts, too
06/28/02: 'Supreme Court reads polls, too
06/25/02: 'The Body' bites, then bows out
06/21/02: Punishment first, then the crime?
06/18/02: Reporting still risky for Haiti's press
06/14/02: Bush's security plan leaves large gaps
06/04/02: Fix FBI's culture gap first
05/28/02: Fidel's new apartheid for tourists
05/21/02: Now McKinney's lunacy sounds like the Democratic Party line
05/19/02: A paradox of historical proportions
05/14/02: 'Murphy Brown' revisited in age of Ozzy
05/10/02: America looks like a model of tolerance and inclusion
05/07/02: Forget it, Bill, you're no Oprah
04/26/02: Mapping out ethnic and racial change
04/23/02: A game of another color
04/19/02: It's high time to open up pot-law debate
04/11/02: 'Osbourne' family values rock, aging Ozzy quakes
03/22/02: Zimbabwe election leaves world sleepless
03/19/02: A slur? Where is thy sting?
03/15/02: A Pearl of wisdom for reporter's unborn son
03/12/02: Army race and gender policies on trial
03/08/02: A short list of losers to be left behind
03/05/02: Revenge of the 'mediasaurus'
02/26/02: Jihads aren't just for Muslims
02/26/02: It's hard to be 'objective' during wartime
02/19/02: Hollywood's new villain: Your HMO
02/12/02: Father of 'Manchild' leaves lasting message
02/08/02: $nookering the reparations crowd
01/31/02: Prisoners of a War of Words
01/29/02: One more Enron woe: Al Sharpton & company
01/25/02: Searching for slaves in bin Laden's attic
01/22/02: Andrew Young's newest 'friend'
01/08/02: Hard-earned lessons from 9-11
12/18/01: Whatever happened to questions about the birds and the bees?
12/14/01: The "White Negro" Taliban?
12/07/01: Jackson's turn to gloat
11/27/01: Friendly warning from a lover of liberty
11/21/01: The face of hunger is changing
11/15/01: Our troubled sense of trust
11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
11/02/01: Wicked ways to make them talk
10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks
© 2001 TMS