Green Trumps Black and White for Television Diversity
by Devon Carlin
Complaints about a racial "white-out" on television are common, but are they valid?
As network executives contemplate fall schedules, they undoubtedly have the concerns of the NAACP on their minds. The veteran civil rights group recently released "Out of Focus - Out of Sync, Take 4," its latest assessment of network diversity.
Analyzing the major broadcast networks between the fall of 2003 and the spring of 2007, the NAACP acknowledges diversity has increased. This progress is nonetheless derided as marginal.
But the measure of diversity seems to be little more than bean-counting. Content seems to take a backseat to the fact that the NAACP is judging diversity by the number of black faces on the screen and behind the camera. Are shows promoting tolerance? It doesn't matter. Are viewers introduced to new ideas and cultures? That's not being measured.
The NAACP goal seems to have more to do with minority job creation in the television industry than actually promoting racial diversity. That's a noble goal and well within the NAACP's purview, but the way the group is going about it is disingenuous.
The report concedes there is no racial conspiracy at work. Instead, there is a buddy system that discriminates equally against everyone not already part of the Hollywood elite. The NAACP report notes: "the exclusion of people of color was less a purposeful and deliberate denial of opportunity, than the effect of narrow thinking and a propensity for executives to hire people they already knew."
What also doesn't seem to be factored into the NAACP's calculations is that black, brown, yellow and white concerns about representation take a backseat to green concerns, a factor especially relevant during the current financial crisis. It is important to remember that programming decisions are based on the goal of getting the largest portion of a now-dwindling pot of advertising dollars.
These economic concerns may actually help bring about the diversity that the NAACP craves. It's a solution based on free-market principle rather than political strong-arming.
Networks are cutting operating costs and boosting ratings with reality programming. Reality TV now accounts for around 30 hours of prime-time television programming each week. Participants on these shows are usually selected from the population at large rather than through a casting agency or agents - often ending up notably more diverse than the cast of scripted series.
This cultural mix is driven less by political correctness than by a desire to succeed in the market. Jonathan Murray of Bunim/Murray Productions, the company behind "The Real World" and "Bad Girls Club," told the Los Angeles Times: "a lot of time, it comes down to the fact that diversity just makes the show better."
David Broome, executive producer of "The Biggest Loser," says reality shows are diverse because producers want shows featuring participants to whom "everyday people" can relate. "And for that," Broome told the Times, "you really need a true representation of the population."
Snagging the attention of viewers and keeping them coming back gets ratings, which brings in advertising dollars. This, in turn, is the key to success in the television industry.
When millions of people tuned in each week this year to see Lil Rounds on "American Idol" or Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George on "Survivor," it proves minority characters can be beneficial to ratings.
This also shows the power of the free market to not only make a profit but promote diversity. Rounds and Johnson were selected for their talents and how they could contribute to the appeal of the show. It would be shocking to think that they were selected only because a space had been set aside for their skin color.
In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King warned against "wrongful deeds" in seeking blacks' "rightful place." Be it in banking, the workplace or the entertainment industry, distrust of the free market hurts legitimate progress toward the realization of that dream of a united America.
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Devon Carlin is a research associate for the Project 21 black leadership network. Comments may be sent to [email protected].
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints
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