Not that he needed it, but at recent auditions for the new Nickelodeon series “Brothers Garcia,” exec producer-screenwriter Jeff Valdez (“Hacienda Heights” “Valdez”) saw firsthand that the so-called diversity problem in U.S. television isn’t going to be solved soon.
Actor after actor came into the room, all of them second- or third-generation Latinos, all of them as American as John Leguizamo and Jimmy Stewart, and asked: Do you want me to do this part with an accent?
“And I said, ‘Well, you don’t have one and the character’s American. So no,'” Valdez recalls. “And they all said, one after another, ‘Thank you.'”
The fact is, Valdez continues, despite all the talk, all the studies and all the promises, network TV is still more like “Hollywood Shuffle” than most executives would like to admit.
“As long as we look at a show like ‘The Hughleys’ and see it as an African-American show rather than just another comedy, we’re not going to progress much,” Valdez says.
And a recent study by Children Now, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group in San Francisco, hasn’t found much evidence to counter Valdez’s gloomy prediction. While there have been quantitative improvements — more people of color on TV in general–qualitatively it’s not such a bright picture:
African-American characters tend to show up on sitcoms and are often seen in work environments. Asian-Americans are likely to be found in dramas. And Latinos, when they are seen, are in secondary roles. Plus, both Latino and Asian-American characters are often victims of racial humor and stereotypes.
The study came to its conclusions after examining the 1999-2000 seasons of 22 top shows including, among others, “Ally McBeal,” “ER,” Moesha” and “For Your Love.”
“There are some positive findings,” says Patti Miller, director of the org’s children and media program, “but each racial group faces challenges when it comes to seeing themselves portrayed in a less one-dimensional way than they are now.”
Children Now is working on a similar study of the 2000-2001 season. The upcoming season does have some potential bright spots, says Doug Alligood, senior vice president of special markets for the Gotham-based ad firm BBDO Worldwide. “It’s better than last year, but it certainly isn’t a revolutionary change.”
Proponents of more diversity were dealt at least one blow in May when CBS failed to pick up “American Family,” filmmaker Gregory Nava’s one-hour drama about a multigenerational Latino family living in East L.A. Starring Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver,” “American Me”) and Constance Marie (“Selena,” “My Family”), the show would be the first Latino-centric one hour ever on American TV.
On the plus side, African-Americans are more in evidence this fall than they’ve ever been. Among shows with black leads on the 2000-01 network schedule are the NBC sitcom “DAG,” starring “In Living Color” alum David Alan Grier; ABC’s “Gideon’s Crossing,” with former “Homicide” star Andre Braugher; and Fox’s James Cameron-produced “Dark Angel” with Jessica Alba (who describes herself as multiethnic). CBS will be taking another shot with Steven Bochco’s “City of Angels,” which debuted on the net this spring to weak ratings and mediocre reviews. Over at the WB, where the net’s ratings took a 20% hit on the downside last year, Sunday night has four shows in a row with largely African-American casts — “The PJs,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “The Steve Harvey Show” and “For Your Love.” Some critics have suggested that the lumping of the four together segregates rather than integrates people of color into net progrmaming. An assertion WB Entertainment prexy Susanne Daniels dismisses. Rather, she says, it’s about putting together a block of programming that appeals to the same demos in a once-a-week
There is some encouraging news for Nava, however. In a rare move, CBS has allowed Greenblatt-Janollari Studio, the company exec producing “American Family,” a chance to pitch the series to other venues. And those efforts have apparently paid off. Sources say the producers are attempting a three-way licensing deal among PBS, HBO and the Fox Family Channel that will have the episodes premiering simultaneously on PBS and in Spanish-lingo versions on HBO’s soon-to-launch HBO Latino channel. Fox Family will get a second run after they run on PBS.
But, stresses Barbara Martinez-Jitner, veep of El Norte’s TV division and producer of “American Family,” don’t celebrate quite just yet.
“I’m not that optimistic,” she says. “I don’t see this as a beginning of the interweaving of the Latino story into the wider American story, at least on television.”
More often than not, she continues, the Jimmy Smits-type of character is the exception, not the rule. “The tradition of the minstrel show really hasn’t changed that much.”