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Portraying Minorities on American TV - 2002-07-13


Two years ago, several civil rights organizations such as the NAACP criticized the major American television networks for their lack of programming diversity. Few shows featured members of minority groups cast in leading roles.

NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume described the network lineups as a "virtual whitewash in programming." With a few months before the start of the 2002-2003 fall TV season, Steven Bochco, a veteran series producer and a network executive, gave his views on racial diversity on television.

Steven Bochco is among the American television producers who have consistently cast minorities in drama series. Creator and producer of such acclaimed shows as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and N.Y.P.D. Blue, Mr. Bochco and his co-executive producers confront racial issues frankly and realistically. Beginning its 10th season later this year, "N.Y.P.D. Blue" shows its Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic officers coping with racial tensions especially in the relationship between a white detective, Andy Sipowicz, and a black lieutenant, Arthur Fancey.

Mr. Bochco said he and series co-creator David Milch include racial issues and diverse casts as a way of adding to the authenticity of their portrayal of a New York City detective squad which in real life, is made up of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

"That conflict as dramatized in the relationship between Sipowicz and Fancy really was, day-in and day-out, written by Dave and he did it brilliantly, and unflinchingly," he said. "Much more unflinching than I would have. It came out of both of our fundamental beliefs that you can't do a realistic show about police work and the political realities of the police environment in New York City without dealing with race. It's there: there are racists in the department. Race is an issue. Sexism is an issue. If you don't tell those stories and just let the tension of that stuff just permeate the environment, then you're not being true to the environment."

Steven Bochco adds that unlike other drama series in which a conflict between characters resolves itself in one or two episodes, the racial tensions between the N.Y.P.D. Blue detectives continue over several years of the series. "That story line, which really played out over the years, had a wonderful incremental growth to it: These two characters really disliked each other and distrusted each other, but grudgingly came to know each other and finally had real respect for each other," he said.

Although Steven Bochco's portrayal of diverse ethnic groups in his series' casts is still relatively unusual, network television executives are making a conscious effort to include characters and plots centered on minority groups. Karey Burke, executive vice president for primetime series at NBC, said her network has high hopes for a new show centering on the Hispanic community.

"We have a show coming this midseason on NBC called Kingpin," she said. "It's about a controversial subject matter. It's an epic of Shakespearean proportions that takes place in Mexico and America. It's about the fight against drugs in and out of America and looks at [the problem] through some American characters and Mexican-American characters. It's a very interesting portrayal of both sides of the issue: there are no clear good guys or bad guys; it's a very sophisticated treatment of the subject."

But aside from introducing new shows with racial minority casts, Ms. Burke said the networks are also trying to address a fundamental issue raised by the civil rights groups: some of the systemic issues, such as diversity among series writers.

"They were absolutely right, it was a terrible year we all looked around and said this is wrong. We have to do better. We can't just say we'll do better. We need to put our money where our mouth is. And put in programs and systems into place to make sure that we're doing better, not just next year and the year after but forever," Ms. Burke said.

A survey from a couple years ago found that of the more than 800 writers working on primetime television shows, racial minorities made up just seven percent of that group. NBC's Karey Burke and other American network executives are trying to change that statistic.

"I'm very proud of the work we've done since then, and it continues. The immediate thing we did was start a program here at NBC that is called the 'second year writers program.' We paid for an extra spot on the writing staff for every returning television show," she said. "So behind the camera where the creativity comes from [we have] the people creating the shows that get put on the air and are helping these people to break through those ranks, which are very hard to break through. This year, I'm proud to say, we expanded that to all our shows. On every single show on the schedule, NBC is paying for a minority writer's position, to make sure these people can break into the system and learn to become producers and developers and then go on to create their own television shows."

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