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Television networks fail to represent minorities

LAST TIME I checked, the Brooklyn Bridge wasn't on the real estate market. Yet every time I turn around, it seems some TV executive is trying to sell it to me. This week, the huckster in question was CBS president Leslie Moonves.

In a July 13 interview with The Washington Post, Moonves stated that, although the fall line-ups of every major network will star only white actors this season, "most networks ... are aware of the need to strive to diversify." He went on to remark that "It's important for us [as TV networks] to represent America the way it really is." Uh-huh. Well sorry, Leslie, but this customer ain't buying.

And, thankfully, neither is NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. At the organization's national convention in New York this week, Mfume announced a plan to prosecute the four major TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX) for failing to adequately represent minorities in their fall-slated programming.

Mfume's litigation strategy centers on the Communications Act of 1934, which states that the airwaves are public property. In the address he delivered at the convention, Mfume asserted that "we [minorities] are a vital part of the public and we will no longer be silent ... we believe that our presence should be appropriately reflected on all levels, both in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes."

Surely no one can fault Mfume's logic, especially if you look at the numbers. This fall, the networks are peddling a grand total of 26 new shows, not one of which features a minority protagonist. In the Post article, each network's top programming executive acknowledges what Mfume dubbed "the virtual whitewash in [fall] programming." As usual, these execs passed the buck--and the blame--onto advertisers, who shamelessly direct their commercials toward affluent white viewers instead of typically middle-income minorities. The result: more sitcoms set in the same culturally anesthetized version of Manhattan, where nary a minority bumps raw-silk blazers with the newest passel of blonde publishing execs.

Of course, what's most interesting about the NAACP's forthcoming lawsuit really isn't the outright demand for more minority-oriented TV shows. That's the easy part. In his address, Mfume urged the "appropriate reflection" of minorities on major network programs. This translates into quality as well as quantity. The shows generated by each network not only should feature minorities in starring roles, they also should positively represent those groups. And if past history is anything to consider, the networks have a lot of improving to do on that score.

Take this past season--please. Among the four black-oriented programs to survive the year, FOX's "The PJs" was probably the least helpful in breaking down negative stereotypes of African Americans. An animated sitcom featuring clay characters, the show centers around a dilapidated, roach-infested housing project in New York City. Film star Eddie Murphy's voiceovers guide viewers through the tenants' slightly depressing adventures, from tepid Spaghetti-O dinners to the annual free-clinic flu shot. While the program certainly does much to break the spells of such cloying suburban comedies as NBC's "Family Matters," I suspect few African Americans consider "The PJs" an "appropriate reflection" of minority culture.

And here we approach the crux of all this media debate. In the scope of things, the NAACP's plan does much more than highlight the problems minorities face at the hands of TV execs. How many of us can say that, as individuals, we feel adequately represented on the shows we watch? But I can't describe how difficult it is to come home to my penthouse after a long day at the fashion design studio, where I'm head designer at the age of 20 and all my friends have geometric haircuts. I also drive a BMW and my boyfriend is Dylan McDermott.

As if. Television is a medium that deals in stereotypes, in collective assessments of what's hot and what's not. Demographics, market share, these are terms that advertisers understand. They craft commercials around a viewer profile, and then demand that networks come up with programming to fit that sketch. It's business, but that's not an excuse. TV has the power to influence the way Americans view the world, and that means that something besides money should determine what flickers across our screens. So the problem of minority under- and mis-representation belongs to America, not just to the specific groups Mfume addressed at his convention.

Not every white American works at Conde Nast Publishing, and not every African American lives in a housing project. While television certainly cannot portray every nuance of national life, a little diversity couldn't hurt. The public should not allow advertising to trump this imperative. After all, even the smoothest salesman can't get you the Brooklyn Bridge--it's simply not for sale.

(Kiki Petrosino is a rising third-year College student.)

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