Watching Color TV

This just in: Still hardly any Indians on television.

And Asians have only incrementally better representation. Latinos and people of African descent are doing better, but still looking for more. Never know when those network suits will attempt to roll back progress.

On December 1, representatives of Asian-American, Latino, and Native American media advocacy groups presented their annual "report cards" on minority representation in television. (An NAACP version is due out next month.) Network television, that is. These reports are consistently worth a few column-inches of newspaper space, some cursory web stories, and a "tsk"-flavored 15 seconds of local anchor soundbite time, but their value for effecting real change is still in question.

It would seem that the biggest motivation for change would be the network's own ears to the ground and the cell numbers of producers and agents of color. This year, NBC and Fox declined even to submit numbers for executive and minority-themed project procurements, respectively.

As unduly Caucasian as the television landscape can appear, these reports, staples since the Big Four networks agreed in 1999 to increase diversity, come off more dire and less connected than the television you know and love. They read as though downloading has not yet been invented. This year's reports generally praise ABC for its diversity in casting shows such as "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" and the overall Latino vibe of its Wednesday night lineup, which features "The George Lopez Show" and Freddie Prinze Jr. in "Freddie."

Beyond that -- Native Americans aside, of course -- idiot box progress is presented as mixed yet hopeful. Again.

In fact, television has never contained a greater percentage of colored faces and programming written and produced by such people. Myrka Dellanos, Sujin Pak and Dave Chappelle are, for small example, television personalities of large influence and heat among certain segments of American culture. Such actors and personalities aren't included in the report cards, which are compiled and presented by the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition.

The reports count primetime network presence and ignore all else, although this year a reality show category has been added. Under those criteria, the partially Spanish-language children's phenomenon that is "Dora The Explorer" goes unrecognized. Likewise, Peter Chung's mid-'90s MTV phenomenon "Aeon Flux," one of the greatest influences in the TV animation movement, would not have been counted.

"Programming and networks that rely on young audiences are more likely to show diversity," said Neal Justin, television critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. "Let's give credit where credit is due."

Cable representation isn't monitored "because it takes a helluva lot of time, energy, and resources," said Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Limited resources also result in the advocacy groups opting against counting news and sports programming in its diversity studies.

Karen Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, said her organization has had UCLA graduate students count the screentime accrued by Asian talent on cable.

"If you look at MTV, for example, they do a better job than the networks on any given night," Narasaki said. "The same is true of Lifetime."

Most of the channels -- cable or broadcast -- are owned by the same media companies, which means they deserve some blame for keeping the color in cable. If Viacom, for example, thought its Comedy Central and MTV stars would keep their advertisers and audiences satisfied, the corporation would find a place for them on primetime network shows, which play to much larger audiences. Stars, producers, and writers of cable shows are generally paid less than their network counterparts.

"I don't think we should downplay the problems with broadcast networks," Justin said. "They're still doing a crummy-to-mediocre job."

Justin used the example of NBC's "ER" and its depiction of Asians.

"In Chicago [where the drama is set], you can't avoid an Asian doctor," says Justin, yet he estimates that only two have appeared on the show. This, he says, is due to the politicization of television minority representation, as well as black scriptwriters' relative success in breaking Hollywood's color barrier. On the positive side, he cited an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which the title character "had a one-night stand with a South Asian, and there was no reference to it. That's just the way it was. You gotta give that props."

The fact that media observers even have to count the odd instance of apparent color-blind casting makes Narasaki, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, chafe. The media monitor said primetime shows about high school fail because network writers lack experience with integrated public school education and sketch portraits that bear little resemblance to actual life. This ignorance filters down to minor characters who aren't incidentally Asian, whether they're walking in airports or working in office buildings.

"I should be able to see myself in any role," she said. "I'm looking forward to the day when Asian-Americans are just like any other people."

The Asian and Latino reports generally give the four major networks B-to-C grades. CBS -- traditionally the lowest scoring, according to the Asian Coalition -- earned a C-, and ABC scored highest with a C+. The Latino media council also gave ABC its highest grade, a B, while CBS, Fox and NBC all earned C+ grades. Native Americans in Television and Film gave all of the networks failing grades. And representatives from the networks said, again, that diversity is important and they will try to increase it.

Despite the impact of cable television, which pioneers more daring shows and is generally more integrated, the monitors of the TV Report Card are going to continue to hammer away at network TV.

"The reality is that the networks have a lot more of the audience," Narasaki said. The monitors take umbrage at the assertion that their approach is dated. They're not going to shift their attention from the single-digit channels on your TV, where network programming is, to the cable channels. And they're not going to stop focusing on prime time.

"It's not in sports. It's not in news. It's not in children's programming," Nogales said. "It's in primetime. You have to go to where the most eyeballs are."

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