African-American characters repped in 16% of shows, but spread unevenly

African-American characters on primetime television have become “ghettoized” — concentrated on sitcoms Monday and Friday nights, and on the UPN and the WB networks, a Screen Actors Guild study released Thursday showed.

“These findings are important because the ways in which groups are included on or excluded from America’s dominant medium reflect, in strikingly visual terms, unresolved questions about power imbalances in our society,” said study author Dr. Darnell M. Hunt, director of African-American Studies at USC.

The study examined 384 episodes of 87 primetime series during five weeks last fall to include pre-sweeps (Oct. 17-30), sweeps (Oct. 31-Nov. 13) and post-sweeps (Nov. 28-Dec. 4) on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB. It showed blacks were slightly over-represented in primetime with nearly 16% of all characters (988 out of 6,199), compared to representing 12.2% of the U.S. population, but Hunt cited several examples showing that black TV characters were not evenly distributed:

  • 50.5% of all blacks were in sitcoms, compared to 30% of white characters, 21.1% of Latino characters and 17% of Asian characters.

  • Blacks were under-represented at Fox with less 10% of all characters and at NBC with 11%. “Moreover, most of these characters are not central of their respective program’s storyline,” Hunt said.

  • Blacks are regulars in only 27.3% of Fox’s primetime shows compared to 66.7% for CBS and all eight UPN shows.

  • Monday and Friday are “black” nights in primetime with seven predominately African-American sitcoms. The two nights accounted for more than half of all black characters appearing in primetime.

  • Ten of the 17 fictional programs in the top 20 have African American series regulars.

Actress Anne-Marie Johnson, a regular on CBS’ “JAG” and chair of SAG’s Ethnic Employment Opportunity Committee, said the report would be used as an educational tool aimed partly at the newly created network posts of vice president of diversity. Since the start of 2000, the four major networks have signed agreements with an NAACP coalition to bring more minorities into TV.

Johnson said SAG began working toward such a study 10 months ago and called the report “the most exhaustive and nuanced look at African-Americans on television.” She said the guild plans to distribute the report to network executives along with a video showing examples of “resourceful programming,” and “missed opportunities.” A recent study by media buyer TN Media showed that the demographic divide had narrowed in TV viewership with CBS as the No. 1 network among both blacks and whites for the second fall in a row. UPN rebounded from sixth in 1998 to second place among blacks.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more