Study: Nets suffer bum rap on race

CBS, ABC in sync with population

A new research report from TN Media challenges the conventional wisdom that network television is doing a poor job of representing blacks in primetime and suggests that things have gotten better, not worse, over the past 20 years.

With the major nets continuing to draw fire from the NAACP and other minority lobbying groups over the paucity of nonwhite characters in this season’s crop of new fall shows, the study by the powerhouse ad agency suggests that a much different picture of diversity emerges when both new and returning skeins are considered.

In fact, two of the Big Four webs, CBS and ABC, actually feature more black actors in leading roles on their primetime series than the 11.8% of the U.S. population that is African-American, according to TN Media partner Steve Sternberg.

Looking at the 1999-2000 primetime schedules of the Big Four networks, Sternberg says that 18% of the characters on CBS’s primetime series (not counting reality shows, newsmagazines, animated comedies and movies) are blacks, as are 14% of ABC’s characters.

Even with Fox coming in at only 7% black characters and NBC at 8%, the four-network average winds up at 12%.

And when Sternberg counts UPN’s 45% black primetime characters and the WB’s 23%, the six-network average weighs in at 16%.

The study, which never refers to the NAACP or any other minority rep group by name, also firmly disputes the notion that there were more “racially diverse” series on network TV from the 1970s through the mid-’80s, when there were only three broadcast networks.

Well-drawn characters

In those years, Sternberg said, “The dramas that did have the token black police captain or other peripheral character hardly had the well-drawn-out, multidimensional characters that we’ve seen over the past few years on shows like ‘NYPD Blue,’ ‘The Practice,’ ‘ER,’ ‘Homicide,’ ‘Chicago Hope,’ ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’ ‘Early Edition’ and ‘Touched by an Angel.’ ”

Sternberg maintained that ad agencies and media-buying companies certainly don’t want primetime skeds completely dominated by shows featuring nothing but upscale, young, white Americans.

Diversity helps everyone

“We want choices and options, the more the better,” he said. TN and other media buyers, he continued, “have a wide range of clients that target a diverse range of demographic segments. … Everyone appealing to the same audience hurts us all, viewers and advertisers alike,” because it “further polarizes the audience, and contributes to network-ratings erosion.”

But Sternberg agreed with the charge that Hispanics are not adequately represented on primetime TV, and that among those who are “producing and writing series, and … deciding what gets on the air,” minorities are woefully underrepresented.

What could turn out to be a shot in the arm for black and Hispanic actors is Steven Bochco’s midseason-replacement series on CBS, “City of Angels,” which is set in an inner-city Los Angeles hospital and features a predominantly minority cast.

If “City of Angels” becomes successful, Sternberg said, “we’ll see more to come — the networks always copy what works.”