SAG's Johnson: Ethic diversity possible this decade

Anne-Marie Johnson, the Screen Actors Guild’s lead voice on the affirmative action front, has predicted the TV industry will achieve the goal of accurate representation of the nation’s ethnic diversity within the next decade.

“We have a wonderful crop of young minority talent and women coming up,” Johnson said Friday, during a SAG-sponsored seminar on diversity at the Television Critics Assn. tour. “In 10 years, you’re going to see a solid change.”

Johnson, chair of the union’s Ethnic Employment Opportunity Committee, gave an upbeat forecast, in contrast with her admission that the issue of minority representation remains problematical because of a combination of prejudice and lack of interest by decision-makers.

“We still live in a racist society and we still see horrific images of racism,” she added.

Progress noted

But Johnson said progress has come from gains by minorities and women in areas such as show runners, producers and writers, in the wake of pledges earlier this year by the four major networks to increase diversity at all levels of their organizations. She cited as a key step the creation of VP of diversity slots by the networks.

Johnson, whose credits include “JAG” and “In the Heat of the Night,” gave a mixed review to last season’s efforts by networks to increase diversity among actors, by noting that the roles for minorities often lacked depth and dimension.

“Hopefully, we’ll see more realistic characters this year,” she said, adding that she has been impressed by the diversity on new cable shows such as “Soul Food” and “Resurrection Blvd.”

Johnson admitted her union activism has led to a decline in the number of acting jobs she is offered. “What keeps me strong is knowing that I’m in the right and that I’m speaking for 50% of the Guild. I’m not working as much as I should be. But I think that will change.”

Panelists speak

Friday’s panel included the authors of two SAG recent studies — Harry Pachon, of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, who contended that Latino actors continued to face racial stereotypes in Hollywood and under-representation in TV and films; and USC’s Dr. Darnell Hunt, who found African-American characters on primetime had become “ghettoized” by being concentrated on sitcoms airing Monday and Friday nights on the WB and UPN networks.

Both authors said TV continues to overlook massive markets by not increasing diversity. “When Latinos see offensive images, they tend not to write to sponsors,” Pachon said. “They just surf away. Corporate sponsors are losing out.”

Hunt pointed out that African-Americans tend to watch more TV than whites and spend a “disproportionate share” of their income on key consumer products. “They are precisely the type of viewers that networks typically promote to advertisers,” he noted.

Hunt said a key problem comes from inertia. “The industry tends to have the same people on shows and staffs, and minorities tend to be under-represented among the people who make decisions,” he added.

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