Is This Thing On?

Feb 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

I just got through reading the special diversity issue of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Emmy magazine. In it are interviews with black, Hispanic, Asian, disabled and gay people who’ve had success in the business, a profile of BET on its 25th anniversary and more. It was all very nice: four-color, glossy and laudatory. But what it didn’t have was a call to action; what I didn’t see was a plan for making progress in diversifying television.

I think there is a disconnect between the industry and the simmering dissatisfaction among the audience of ethnic minorities, disabled people and gays and lesbians. I encounter it constantly as I do research for this column. When I mention to people that I am writing a column on diversity in television, without my asking, they talk about how they’re frustrated by the limited choices. Asians, blacks and Latinos I speak to complain about the scarcity of programming and frequency of stereotypical casting as criminals, clowns or domestic servants.

People are disillusioned with the prospects for change. An example: Barely had the ink dried on the agreement between CBS and Warner Bros. to merge netlets UPN and The WB into one entity called The CW when I received e-mail expressing concern about what the merger portends. Will it be another incidence of a fledgling broadcast network (UPN) building itself on the strength of the African American audience and then abandoning that audience without a backward glance?

Some people-obviously of the glass-half-full variety-cite programming such as “The Boondocks” on Cartoon Network and “Mind of Mencia” on Comedy Central as positive signs, but are the few cable entries really progress?

When I was in college I was a dormitory resident assistant for a year. I was den mother to roughly 25 young women, among whom I was the only African American. One afternoon I dropped in on a group of my residents while they were watching TV-“The Jeffersons.” As I entered the room, one girl piped up, “Hey, Lil, we’re watching one of your shows!” It was meant to be funny, and it was; we all laughed. But here it is 2006, decades later, and broadcast viewing is still greatly divided between yours, mine and theirs. And “mine” is still almost exclusively sitcoms.

People are frustrated by the slow pace of progress and tired of the lip service and facile explanations like the commonly heard chestnut that television is a business motivated by only one color: green. But that is a trick of smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that every TV season mainstream dramas like “Just Legal,” “The Book of Daniel” and “Head Cases” become costly cancellations, but their failures don’t prevent the appearance of more costly untried mainstream dramas the next season.

I suspect these excuses protect the status quo. After all, if more programs are about people of color, then there likely will be more writers and actors of color and ultimately more network executives of color, which means fewer places for white writers, actors and executives.

But if programming is truly a crapshoot, then why not take a chance on something different? Here’s a plan: For one year, every broadcast network sets aside one hour a day of prime time and one hour a day of daytime for programming by and about the disabled, people of color or lesbians or gays. Every cable network will set aside any two hours of every day. To fill those two daily hours, networks would be forced to seek out content beyond the comical or criminal. I think viewers would tune in during these hours, if just to see what the experiment produces.

Do I expect this to happen? Not really, but like a vaudeville comedian who taps the mike and asks, “Is this thing on?” I want to know if anyone is paying attention. Perhaps a radical idea will wake up the industry to the fact that change is necessary and unavoidable.

And that’s no joke.