The Network Brown-Out
It was on January 1st, 1954, at the Pasadena Rose parade. After years of televisions flickering in a range of gray, a Technicolor TV broadcast in color for the first time. Gone were the monochromatic images that were not true to the world they portrayed. Instead, those parade watchers saw the roses in full rainbow and the costumes in a range of colors. All the tints and hues reflected just like the real world. It's been more than 47 years since that first color television. Color TV's now exist in 99 percent of American homes. But look at today's TV's more closely, and it seems they are still airing in black and white. Compare it to the colors in the real world, and you'll see they've left out the brown.
When the latest U.S. Census released its figures, there was great media coverage on the boom in the Latino population. At over 35 million strong, Latinos now make up over 12.5 percent of the American population. But with the exception of a couple of bar graphs and political voting analyses, that's where the media ended. American media may cover Latinos, but it rarely includes them.
A recent report by advocacy group Children Now showed that, despite making up over 12.5 percent of the general populous, only 2 percent of characters in prime time television are Latino. Compare this with the statistics on America's other racial minorities -- African-Americans at 12.3 percent of the population and 17 percent of primetime characters and Asian Americans at 3.6 percent of the population and 3 percent of characters -- and Latino representation is glaringly absent. Out of prime time's 2,251 actors, only 47 are Latino and of those 3 dozen actors, most play minor roles or non-Latino characters. When not counting Latino actors playing gringos, like The West Wing's Martin Sheen (nee Ramon Estévez), that 2 percent is even smaller.
The reasons given for this brownout are dubious at best. When questioned on the dearth of Latino representation, the major networks most popular response is that they are, in the words of CBS Senior vice president Josie Thomas, "working on it." After the fall schedules were unveiled in May, Thomas justified the white wash by saying: "There are opportunities for guest stars, recurring roles are still open. This isn't the end of the story."
When a multi-ethnic coalition graded ABC a 'D-minus' on their effort to increase the number of minorities, ABC spokesman Zenia Munch reiterated CBS's reasons, "We anticipate that characters in (this fall's) programs will be recast prior to the beginning of the season, There will be improvement and additional changes in the diversity of the cast."
Networks also use the fact that 35 percent of the Latino audience watches the Spanish-speaking stations Telemundo and Univision. They pass off responsibility for Latino representation by pointing to the language barrier, though some advocates say Spanish is not the language in question. Money talks, and the perception that recent Latino immigrants are also lower-income keeps many television executives and advertisers from listening to those with a Spanish accent.
Of course, efforts to prioritize diversity in American media should be about more than money. But even if it were solely about markets, by ignoring the Latino audience, networks are also ignoring a large consumer base. Not only do Latino households watch an average of 4 hours more television a week than non-Latino households, but more than half of the Hispanic population is in the network's coveted under 25 range. According to respected research firm Teenage Research Unlimited, Latino youth also continually outspend their white counterparts from higher-income brackets.
And what about the other 90 percent of the American television-watching public? The Cosby show was watched by more than just African Americans. The Nielson ratings don't dip when ER's black characters speak. Look at other popular culture, and the networks' skepticism about Latinos' cross-over potential is groundless.
Mainstream prime time may give a cold shoulder to Latino characters, but other outlets realize that Latin culture is hot. With Ricky Martin recently crowned the number one dance artist by VH1, Christine Aguilera topping the charts and Jennifer Lopez lounging half-clad on magazine covers across the country, it's evident Latinos aren't an American turn-off.
But herein lies another problem. Though every minority is subjected to stereotypes, when you only have 2 percent representation, the roles that do exist have that much more impact. Take for instance WB's Popstar, which is a statistical rarity in that three out of five central characters are Latina. The girl-group reality show revolves around five girls of color (the other two have parents from the Pacific Islands) as they vie to be sex-pot rock stars. In between interviews where Ana Marie, Rosanna and Ivette ponder the benefits of being a role model, the cameras follow the girls as they swivel their belly-baring hips and preen for photo-shoots. Latinas may not be a turn-off, but they are also more than a mere turn-on.
If not the temptress or latin lover, Latino parts are reminiscent of pre-civil rights black portrayals: the entertainer, the maid, the criminal or the victim. Children Now found Latinos most often cast in secondary roles with non-professional jobs. More than half of all reoccurring Latina characters have roles in service. "When you see yourself portrayed as victim or suspect, or subservient to an Anglo society, we lose the idea that there are options out there for us," said Latino producer Dennis Leoni.
There are a few notable exceptions like NYPD Blue's new lieutenant Esai Morales, but most shows, even those that take place in Latino-concentrated cities, rely on Latinos more for colored backdrops and cardboard cutouts than full flesh characters. The percentage of Latino characters in LA-based shows was 8.6 percent compared to the cities actual 44 percent Latino population. Out of 36 primary characters in New York-based shows only two were Latino. This in a city that's over 27 percent Latino. The major networks can't even be accused of tokenism because they have too few token efforts to show.
Outside of the major networks, however, people are mobilizing around more complex Latino characters and series. TV's first Latino drama, Resurrection Blvd., aired on Showtime last season and is returning in the fall. It is a series about a family of boxers; creator Leoni says the story is a "perfect metaphor of Latinos trying to fight, literally and figuratively, for a piece of the American Dream." PBS has also recently picked up CBS-rejected American Family. Starring Edward James Olmos, Sonya Braga and Raquel Welch, American Family stretches the standard stereotype by telling the story of middle class Latino family.
Interestingly, the other notable exception to this scarcity in Latino media has been in children's programming. Nickelodeon has had significant success with Latino shows. They air two Latino family sitcoms, the Brothers Garcia and Taina, as well as a cartoon, Dora the Explorer, where the Latina lead's frequent Spanglish flaunts the English-only rule. Add the fact that most of the few mainstream Latino leads are in teen shows (i.e Dark Angel, That 70's Show and Popstars) and it seems Latino representation is improving for the next generation.
These efforts are important not only because they give Latino children role models beyond the perp and the porn star, but also because they also shape a larger generation's perceptions of each other. While Bilingual Lations can tune into Telemundo, Univision or an array of Spanish-speaking media, uni-lingual Anglo-Americans have fewer sources. The scarce and disparaging television roles that do exist thus have a disproportionate effect on their view of the larger Latino culture.
We have come far since that first color TV. No longer are we limited to RCA's; we now have VCR's and DVD's. And just as our technology has changed, so has our country. We don't just have the Jone's, we also have Garcia's, Lopez's and Martinez's. Yet, despite all our media-savvy, we still haven't managed to focus our camera on the bigger picture. For as far as we have come, our technicolor televisions are still broadcasting in black and white.