Project 21 New Visions

 

NAACP TV Boycott Should Get Poor Reception

by Rose Capozzi

Founded to secure and protect the "citizenship rights" of black Americans, the NAACP established an honorable reputation fighting Jim Crow laws, championing school desegregation and advocating groundbreaking civil rights legislation. George Washington Carver, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other NAACP members are widely celebrated as American heroes.

But as the NAACP succeeded in bringing social and economic equality, it appears to have left itself largely devoid of a mission.

In the 1990s, the NAACP suffered a severe decline in membership, disastrous mismanagement and nearly $5 million debt. In an effort to rebuild itself, the board named former congressman Kweisi Mfume as CEO and president in 1996. Mfume pledged to revitalize the NAACP, saying at a press conference, "I'm getting ready to do battle."

Mfume's army mobilized, waging war on... TV sitcoms.

In 1999, Mfume called on network executives from ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX to hire more minorities for acting and behind the scenes work. He threatened TV boycotts and litigation while brandishing non-compliant networks as "either clueless, careless or both."

All of Mfume's bluster came despite the fact that, according to the Screen Actor's Guild, blacks were cast in 14.1 percent of all TV roles and movies in 1999, while comprising approximately 12 percent of the population. NBC and ABC still created new programs that included more black actors. Those networks later signed an agreement to "reaffirm [their] intent to enhance diversity." NBC President Bob Wright proclaimed, "Working with the NAACP and a coalition of other minority organizations, we have come up with a series of aggressive initiatives to widen the pipeline of diverse talent and raise awareness in our community on these issues." FOX and CBS followed suit within days.

Seven years later, the NAACP is yet again calling for more on-air diversity. Before the fall TV season's employment statistics were available, current NAACP President Bruce Gordon called the state of TV "unconscionable" because none of the top broadcast networks' sitcoms features a black actor in a leading role. Just like his predecessor, Gordon is threatening a publicity war.

While the NAACP concedes the networks have taken great strides to diversify dramatic and reality programming, Gordon claims there is still a disparity in sitcoms - especially after several predominantly black shows were cancelled due to the UPN and the WB networks merger.

The NAACP's television tirades beg the question: Has an organization so integral in securing blacks' unfettered voting rights and desegregated schools, among other things, run out of causes?

The real race problem facing television executives is finding an audience to maintain predominantly black sitcoms. CBS's "The Gregory Hines Show" and Fox's "Getting Personal" are recent examples of shows produced with good intentions that failed due to poor ratings.

Jason Gay of The Boston Phoenix notes that a show must capture at least part of the largest demographic - white America - to get ratings and secure the advertising dollars that keep shows on the air. Gay says that classic sitcoms such as "The Jeffersons" and "The Cosby Show" succeeded because they reflected aspects of black culture while deliberately appealing to a broader audience. Today's black sitcoms put more emphasis on elements of the black community.

Content, however, takes a backseat to revenue in the entertainment industry. Black actor Morgan Freeman recognizes this, saying, "I don't think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They're predicated completely on money." Television is a marketplace of commerce before ideas. "American Idol" and "Deal or No Deal" exists because they have a broad appeal. Every year, critically acclaimed programs are cancelled because they simply can't capture the same audience as their mind-numbing alternatives.

While the NAACP is still capable of uplifting the black race, using the bully pulpit to ensure that the next "Friends" or "Two and a Half Men" has a black actor in a key role pales in comparison to desegregating our government-run schools or addressing current concerns such as black-on-black crime and educational disparities. And it may signal the NAACP is an organization risking cancellation.

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Rose Capozzi is a research associate with the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.


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