February 6, 2009

The whiteout on network television must stop

By David A. Love
Progressive Media Project and
McClatchy Washington Bureau
February 4, 2009

We need to see more people of color on TV shows. Even with our first black president, there is a virtual whiteout on network TV, and many people of color are unable to find a job – as a writer, actor or producer, much less an executive or decision maker. 

Although approximately one in three Americans is a person of color, Hollywood is, and always was, a white industry. Communities of color are not represented in proportion to their numbers. Even when minorities are portrayed, their storylines and characters usually remain subordinate to those of whites.

The NAACP is faulting Hollywood for this under-representation and is demanding that the industry step up and change the situation. The 100-year-old civil rights organization recently released a report called "Out of Focus – Out of Sync, Take 4: A Report on the Television Industry." 

Back in 2002, minorities were cast in a record number of roles on TV – 10,893, or 24.2 percent of the total, according to the report. Since then, there has been a steady downward trend in available television opportunities for qualified actors and writers. This has been due to the ever-increasing popularity of reality programming, which is diverse, but does not require scripts and actors. And performers, writers and producers of color are claiming a smaller and smaller portion of a shrinking pie.

In the 1999-2000 season, only 55 writers out of 839 working in prime-time television, or 6.6 percent, were black. Most of them were not working for one of the four major networks. Actually, 77 percent were working for UPN and WB, and a third of all black television writers in America worked on only two shows, UPN's "Moesha" and "The Parkers," both of which have been canceled.

And after the merger of UPN and WB to form the CW network, only 37 black writers remained in the 2006-2007 season, and minority programming has all but completely vanished since then.

"At a time when the country is excited about the election of the first African-American president in U.S. history, it is unthinkable that minorities would be so grossly underrepresented on broadcast television," said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.

According to the report, the factors that stifle employment and promotion opportunities for minorities are highly subjective practices, including a closed roster system, lack of access through Hollywood agents and discriminatory guild membership requirements.

In the early days of television, it was common for blacks to run to the TV and call their friends when a person of color was making an on-air appearance. Today, such appearances should not be so rare.

And the roles minorities get need to be varied and rich.

In the 1987 movie "Hollywood Shuffle," Robert Townsend plays a struggling black actor who is faced with few job prospects except for demeaning stereotyped roles as jive-talking street hustlers. At the end of the movie, his character quits acting, declaring, "There's always work at the post office." 

Now, more than 20 years later, America can and must do more to end discrimination and ensure equal opportunity in Hollywood.

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