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TV networks lagging in diversity, report says

Nearly a decade after the NAACP condemned a “virtual whiteout” in broadcast TV, the civil rights group said major networks have stalled in their efforts to further ethnic diversity on-screen and off.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly a decade after the NAACP condemned a “virtual whiteout” in broadcast TV, the civil rights group said major networks have stalled in their efforts to further ethnic diversity on-screen and off.

Television shows of the future could be even less inclusive because of a failure to cultivate young minority stars and to bring minorities into decision-making positions, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said.

The effect on the country could be profound, Jealous said.

“This is America: So goes TV, so goes reality. We don’t think it’s any accident that before we had a black president in reality, we had a black president on TV,” he said, referring to the chief executive portrayed by Dennis Haysbert on Fox’s “24.”

A “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color” can be traced in part to the lack of minorities who have the power to approve new series or make final creative decisions, said Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director of NAACP’s Hollywood bureau.

In a report due to be released Thursday, the NAACP calls on networks to revisit a 2000 agreement to diversify the ranks of actors, writers, directors and executives. It also seeks to establish a task force with network executives, the NAACP and other civil rights groups.

The report raises the possibility of political action if progress is lacking, including a boycott against an unspecified network and its major advertisers or class-action litigation against the networks and parent companies.

Particularly disturbing, Jealous said, is the course charted by the CW, born of the defunct UPN and WB networks that had featured a number of black-oriented series including “Moesha” and “The Steve Harvey Show.”

“Those two networks provided an opportunity for young talent of color in this town. ... They merged into a network which appears to have systematically cut programming targeted to communities of color,” Jealous said.

CW’s lineup includes white-oriented shows “Gossip Girl” and “90210,” although it also airs the black sitcoms “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game.”

A movie star such as Will Smith emerged because he could gain early exposure in the TV comedy “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Jealous said.

CW declined comment on the report, as did ABC, NBC and Fox. CBS received a request for comment late Wednesday and did not immediately respond.

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On the heels of the 1999-2000 fall lineup of new shows that lacked any minority actors in lead roles — then-NAACP head Kweisi Mfume called it a “virtual whiteout” — the NAACP and Asian-American, Hispanic and Indian civil rights groups formed a coalition to lobby networks.

Broadcasters agreed to create minority recruitment and training programs and to chart minority hiring among actors, writers, directors and managers.

The coalition groups have charted their progress with annual reports, although the NAACP has not always participated, often finding sharp underrepresentation of minorities in front of and behind the camera.

The four major broadcast networks have made “important strides” in increasing diversity, the new NAACP report said, including filling lead roles with actors such as Haysbert, starring in CBS’ “The Unit,” and Laurence Fishburne, now on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

However, using figures compiled by the networks and industry guilds, the NAACP found a less rosy picture overall.

The number of minority actors in prime-time shows has remained flat or even dipped in recent years, decreasing from 333 in the 2002-03 season to 307 in 2006-07, according to the report. The number of minority writers working during the 2006-07 season was 173, a drop from the 206 employed during the previous season, the report said.

Reality programming has dampened employment prospects for minority actors and writers, as it has for whites, but shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” do offer a benefit: They are likely to be more diverse in casting than most scripted series, the NAACP noted, providing a truer national portrait.