Fears raised that networks are backsliding

At a time when the first African-American president is about to take office, a new report is zeroing in on an irony of the historic moment given what the researchers call a “serious shortage of minority faces” on network primetime television.

In fact, the study, released on Thursday by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, raises fears that networks are backsliding on progress made earlier this decade and that the economic downturn will only make it more difficult for minorities to get jobs on and offscreen.

“There is anecdotal evidence that the recent WGA strike and the economic concerns that it engendered have only entrenched members of the various guilds in the long-held habits of nepotism and cronyism, causing them to make sure that they take care of friends and family,” the report stated.

Although the study addressed hiring practices throughout the industry, most of its data zeroed in on the broadcast networks, which came under fire in 1999, when none of their new primetime shows featured a person of color in a leading role. It triggered threats of boycotts and inspired an agreement the nets reached with the NAACP and other minority groups to achieve greater progress in casting and hiring.

The study showed that the number of minorities in regular or recurring roles on scripted series decreased on CBS, Fox and NBC in the 2006-07 season compared to peaks several seasons earlier. Only ABC showed gains, from 74 parts cast with minority performers in 2002-03 to 116 in 2006-07.

It also concludes that there has been a “virtual disappearance of black programming” since the merger of UPN and the WB, whose lineup included shows such as “Moesha” and “The Parkers,” into the CW.

“It is hard to draw any positive conclusions when, as stated in the June 20, 2008, issue of Entertainment Weekly, the only minority ‘lead’ in a new show on a major network for the 2008-09 TV season is ‘Cleveland Brown,’ an African-American animated character voiced by a white person,” the report states.

Although there has been “incremental progress” for African-Americans and Hispanics, there has been “little or no progress” for Asian-Americans and Native Americans. Writing and directing assignments showed some gains in the five seasons from 2002 to 2007, although the report states that there still is a “gross underrepresentation of minorities” across all areas.

A caveat is reality TV. Oddly enough, while reality television has shrunk the number of plum scripted programming assignments, the NAACP report states that shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” are “likely to be more diverse in casting than their scripted counterparts.”

The report also does not cover the past season and the current one, meaning that hiring practices could have fluctuated somewhat since then. Laurence Fishburne, for instance, was recently cast as the lead on “CSI.”

In fact, earlier this month, the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition released its annual report cards, and while it found progress lagging in the hiring of Asian-Americans and Native Americans, their interpretation of trends was more encouraging.

Esteban Torres, chairman of the National Latino Media Council, said that “network diversity is finally taking hold. It is reasonable to expect that the present numbers will continue to climb and there will be no backsliding.” His group gave B-plus grades to ABC, Fox and CBS, and a B to NBC.

The NAACP hopes that Obama’s incoming administration will put more pressure on the networks and focus more attention on minority hiring.

“We hope that this political moment that we are living through will inspire them to reflect and self-correct,” NAACP prexy-chief exec Benjamin Todd Jealous told Daily Variety.

Jealous said that the influence of shows with minority characters is undoubtable, citing “The Cosby Show” and its depiction of a middle-class African-American family, or Dennis Haysbert’s role as the president on “24,” a part he said perhaps helped pave the way for Obama’s election. (The report makes mention of Haysbert’s “The Unit” on CBS as the only series centered around an African-American actor in the 2006-07 season.)

The report, called “Out of Focus, Out of Sync,” is the NAACP’s fourth update on network hiring practices of actors, writers and executives. It was conducted by the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau, headed by Vicangelo Bulluck.

The NAACP does single out areas for praise.

“All four major broadcast networks have made important strides in increasing diversity,” the report states. “More actors of color are on-air, particularly as ensemble players. Network television places more emphasis on outreach and recruitment of qualified minority candidates, and the number of people of color employed in creative positions has seen small increases. However, as captured through the lens of broadcast television, Native Americans continue to be a faceless, voiceless group within American society, their relevance seemingly reduced to a distant, historical connection.”

The NAACP is calling for a task force including the heads of the networks, diversity executives and minority groups to update their agreements. It also raised the prospect of a boycott if “tangible progress” is not achieved in the coming seasons.

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