Editorial: Diversity report fails to take on the real issues

Jul 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When the Big 4 networks earlier this month received another bad report card on diversity from the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition it hardly came as a surprise. The coalition has long been dissatisfied with the nets’ diversity record and has made it clear that it has seen little progress since the networks agreed in 1999 to increase diversity in their programming.
The coalition, which includes the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the National Latino Media Council and American Indians in Film and Television, downgraded CBS and NBC while crediting ABC and Fox with mild improvements. It saved its harshest criticism for CBS, which received the lowest grade of the four, a D-, down from a D+ last year. The coalition announced plans to encourage CBS’s top advertisers to pressure the network on diversity.
CBS was quick to issue a strong rebuttal, accusing the coalition of providing inaccurate figures and calling the attack on the network “the personal agenda of one segment of the coalition and that of its leader.” The CBS statement offered its own statistics, including a 43 percent increase in minority participation in new CBS shows for fall 2002 over shows launched in fall 2001. More to the point, the network stated: “CBS will continue to do what we know is the right and positive thing, and not be sidetracked into engaging in a divisive and negative debate.”
Both sides have a point. Clearly, the Big 4 networks could be doing more to promote diversity in their programming. But CBS and the other nets do appear to have done more than the coalition is prepared to acknowledge.
At the same time, the increasingly confrontational tone on both sides of the debate misses the real point. The diversity issue is bigger than grades and statistics, and bigger than the agendas of individual interest groups. It touches on the nature of the medium itself. At the heart of the issue is whether casting decisions and other programming decisions should be made on the basis of artistic merit, commercial viability, pressure from interest groups or some combination of these and other factors. The coalition’s report, with its unrealistic quantitative approach, oversimplifies the issue, and in the process does diversity a disservice.
The coalition’s credibility is further hurt by its failure to examine the presence of African Americans on network TV. It’s hard to take seriously any study of diversity in the American media that omits such a prominent ethnic group. The coalition lists the NAACP among its members, but that organization has conspicuously avoided participating in the group’s network diversity effort.
Unless the coalition can provide a more unified front and make a more thorough examination of the complex diversity issue, its effort, though well intentioned, will be ineffective. Still, the networks should continue to make every effort to weigh diversity along with artistic and business considerations.