TV distorts minorities, study finds

In the wake of recent studies claiming Hollywood favors white men over women or minorities in its hiring practices, a new report claims that women, the elderly, the disabled and minorities are equally misrepresented by what’s broadcast on TV.

The latest study was released by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio & Television Artists, based on the analysis of 19,645 speaking parts in 1,371 TV programs. The research was conducted by George Gerbner of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvannia.

The study found, in part, that old people are “almost invisible” on TV; that a child viewer watching youth programming sees the fewest minorities; that the most ill-fated characters are often poor, Latino men and women; that gameshows are mostly hosted by middle-aged men with young, often silent, women as their helpers; and that as women age, they are more likely to be portrayed as unsuccessful.

This report comes on the heels of a similar report commissioned by the Writers Guild of America West (Daily Variety, June 15), which looked at Hollywood’s hiring ratios of women, minorities and older people. The reports come at a time when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is about to hold hearings in Los Angeles to gather information for a nationwide study on the rise of racial and ethnic violence.

Gerbner’s report pointed out that while there are 43 million Americans who are disabled, and despite the passage of an equal rights bill for the disabled, only 1.5% of prime time programming touches on the subject.

While people of color are the “vast majority” in the world, and “estimated to reach a majority in America by the year 2000,” the report said that only 13% of primetime and less than 5% of children’s programs have such characters.

Those minorities who are least represented on TV are Asian-Americans and Native Americans, while Latinos are only seen 3% of the time. African-Americans are seen about 11% of the time in prime time network programming, but only 3% of the time in children’s shows.

The place to tune in to see African-Americans is Fox, where two out of every 10 characters is black.

According to the report, 13% of the U.S. population is low income, but only 1 % of the prime time character population falls into that category. Most of the low-income characters portrayed are men.

‘Gloomy’ parents

Married and parent images are “rare and gloomy” in children’s programs and older women often play witches on those programs. And “all the mayhem in children’s cartoons seems painless,” the report said, paving the way for “cool, happy violence.”

Included in the report are 10 years of programming on major network prime time and daytime series, Saturday morning children’s programming, the Fox network, cable-originated programs, game shows and news.

As for television news, the report said that the thematic structure is to report on those with the “exercise of power: Who has it, who uses it, who seeks it, and, most of all, who threatens it.”

In a related report compiled by the Screen Actors Guild, the union reported that the largest number of theatrical film roles (43%) go to men under 40, while men age 40 and over and women under 40 each received about one quarter of all roles. Women age 40 and over are barely represented on the big screen.

In the TV commercial field, women work most often in on-camera roles, receiving 41% of all roles. But when it comes to voice-overs, women receive only 19% of the jobs. For minorities, voice-over work goes mostly to Latinos, who receive 9% of the work, while black employment is very low.