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NAACP Issues Report on TV Network Diversity - 2003-11-11

One of the nation's leading racial equality groups says more blacks and other minorities these days are finding jobs in the U.S. film and television industry. But a new 4-year study of minority hiring trends commissioned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) finds that many of the top jobs in the industry are still out of reach to people of color.

"Considering the almost one hundred year history of the film industry and the patronage of large numbers of diverse movie goers that are critical to a movies' success or failure, the motion picture industry has been a closed door society, generally looking the other way when the topic of employment and diversity arises," says Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. "Our job is making sure that somebody is monitoring the numbers, not so much to meet quotas but to establish if there's any real change taking place compared to the past."

Speaking to reporters in Washington along with other contributors to the NAACP report, Mr. Mfume said his organization has long believed that television and film, more than any other medium, bears the greatest responsibility for shaping images and reinforcing racial or ethnic stereotypes. He says he learned several years ago from some industry insiders about the disparity in hiring practices. He says those insiders were afraid to come forward and say anything about it.

"This industry has a history of retribution. And a history of making sure that if you get on a certain list, you don't get any more work," says Mr. Mfume. "And much of what we got from them early on came from private meetings in Los Angeles and New York with people who are in the industry who said, 'Look, this is terrible, I want to help but I'm afraid. Because I know that if I ever get on that list, I'm not going to get any more work, the studios are going to blacklist me, the networks will blacklist me."

Those concerns helped to spark the NAACP's examination of hiring practices in the film, television and cable industries, and led to negotiations between Kweisi Mfume, other equal-opportunity activists and television and film industry executives. The NAACP Television Diversity Report looks at the numbers and employment trends of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and other minorities in positions in front of and behind the camera, including writers, directors and news correspondents. According to the report, the results have been mixed. Small gains appear to have been made in the number of on-air roles offered people of color, but there's practically no representation at the higher levels of television production. Mr. Mfume cited CBS as leading the networks in its diversity of casting roles in drama and comedy, but there was virtually no change in any of the networks' presentation of news programming.

"CBS was the first to distinguish itself early on in this effort by being the first network to immediately increase employment of minority actors in its prime time schedule, starting out with twenty-nine minorities in regular or recurring roles to sixty-seven the following year," says Mr. Mfume. "This year they continued that trend by employing a record high number of ninety-nine minorities in regular or recurring roles. Sadly, when it comes to news, news specials and TV news magazines, none of the networks and none of the cable news organizations are doing well with diversity or equal opportunity either in front of or behind the camera. This area has shown the least amount of progress or change. Anchors, reporters and "experts" on a subject continue to be overwhelmingly white."

Also speaking at the NAACP news conference was Felix Sanchez, Chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. Mr. Sanchez noted that more "blind casting" that is, non-traditional casting for roles that are not ethnically specific -- could be used to cast more minority actors, particularly in supporting roles.

"For example when "The Practice" lost all of its major cast, they did not come back with finding a Latino lawyer in Boston. When "ER" had its cast leave, they have still yet to find a Latino doctor in Chicago. When "West Wing" lost actor Rob Lowe, they couldn't go out and find a Latino assistant to the president for the cast. So there have been missed opportunities," says Mr. Sanchez. "When there has been a natural departure on shows have been well-established, well viewed and had an opportunity to insert people of color, that was missing significantly from those shows."

NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said he believes that the lack of diversity in film and television has more to do with industry executives' long-standing way of doing business rather than with overt racism. "Where somebody is so bigoted and biased and racist that they just stand up and make decisions. I think that there has been in place over the years the sort of standard practices of who you know, who you went to school with, who you play golf with, whose kids go to school with yours, that you tend to make decisions and offer opportunities," he says. "While not as blatant as overt racism, in the long term it still has the same effect of denying equal opportunity or at least impeding its progress."

Mr. Mfume said his organization's push to get more jobs for minorities in television and film is not about warfare, but about lasting change. But he added that his organization is prepared to introduce new legislation, mount legal challenges, and, as a last resort, implement consumer boycotts against any network or studio that does not adhere to equal employment regulations. He calledthe NAACP Diversity Report "one necessary step in a long journey towards that goal."