Progress depends on where - and how - you look

In 1999, the Los Angeles Times and NAACP jolted the TV industry by identifying the “whitewash” of the new fall season, when none of the 26 new primetime programs scheduled featured minority leads.

So what sort of progress has been made? It depends on where — and how — you look.

The NAACP’s Hollywood Bureau and Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hosted a panel Monday titled “Diversity and the Business of Television,” which tackled the issue from various angles. In preparing to participate, though, what struck me is how difficult it is to measure what constitutes genuine advancement on such a rapidly-moving playing field.

In an age when Charlie Sheen can seemingly devour the airwaves for days, moreover, nuance and perspective are the first casualties. Instead, the media tend to over-emphasize symbolic events, like representation (or the lack thereof) at that year’s Oscars.

In some respects, matters have undoubtedly improved, with fewer “Friends”-like assemblies of all-white characters. More dramas showcase multicultural casts — with more leading characters, as opposed to sidekicks.

Still, any discussion that focuses too closely on a specific moment risks missing the bigger picture. So here are some points to consider:

  • Are gains judged primarily by the number of roles and work available to minorities?
  • Actress Nicole Ari Parker closed the evening Monday by delivering an impassioned plea, saying she can’t afford to wait idly by for incremental progress to come in what must feel like geologic time. For those seeking work now, there’s scant comfort in saying simple head counts aren’t necessarily illuminating.

  • How important is quality? Producer-director Tyler Perry has created plenty of opportunities for African-American actors, but also fostered debate within the black community regarding whether the imagery and themes merit embracing, the paychecks notwithstanding.
  • Is the success of smaller outlets potentially a double-edged sword in further fragmenting the audience, creating a scenario where everyone — by age and interest, as well as race and ethnicity — has their own dedicated channel?
  • When BET’s sitcom “The Game” can draw an audience of 7.7 million viewers for its premiere — bigger than most shows on what we think of as “major networks” — that’s evidence old assumptions are under siege as business models changes. It’s just not precisely clear how.

    “Nobody collects mass eyeballs easily in today’s world,” Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts told the Wall Street Journal. Could this plethora of options have a segregating effect on media consumption, inadvertently draining diversity from the broadest traditional platforms?

  • What about more narrowly targeted content trafficking in stereotypes? Certainly, that’s often true of reality TV, a blunt instrument prone to reducing participants to caricatures, from Beverly Hills mansions (hello, “Real Housewives”) to the “Jersey Shore.”
  • Can we contemplate race in a vacuum, ignoring factors like income and age? Given our youth-obsessed advertising culture, there’s almost undeniably more blatant discrimination practiced by media buyers against viewers over 54 — whose patronage is summarily dismissed — than toward people of color in their teens and 20s.
  • More than anything, the fall of 1999 reflected a kind of unwitting white-out that occurred as networks collectively chased the same young audience. Predictably, vows to do better ebbed and flowed once the media (and our hyperactive attention spans) moved on to new controversies, returning in sporadic fits and starts.

    So did Halle Berry and Denzel Washington winning Oscars eradicate past barriers? Not any more than Barack Obama’s election eliminated racism. Yet to say this year’s dearth of minority Oscar winners means we’re back to square one seems equally misguided.

    Finally, integrating corporate bastions of power to facilitate change — the ultimate goal, as several panelists suggested — must be tempered by the harsh reality that won’t happen overnight. News Corp., after all, is run by a guy named Murdoch, who makes no secret of his intent to pass the kingdom’s keys off to somebody named Murdoch.

    Columns are supposed to build toward focused conclusions, buttressing the central argument along the way. But this one, admittedly, is squishy — offering more questions than answers.

    That’s because much like the industry’s track record on diversity, with apologies to the Boss, for every two steps up, there’s one step back.

    Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email brian.lowry@variety.com

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