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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK

US networks accused of racism

Trauma in TV: The most segregated industry in America?

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

American TV is under fire for the lack of racial diversity in its programming, and the possibility of a national viewer boycott in November of one or all the major networks is being seriously considered.

The boycott is being threatened by one of the country's top civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which claims television has become the most segregated industry in America.

[ image: Mfume: Autumn TV season an
Mfume: Autumn TV season an "outrage"
The threat of a boycott follows last month's complaint from Kweisi Mfume, the President of the NAACP, of "a virtual whitewash in programming" in the forthcoming autumn TV season.

African-Americans make up 12% of viewing households but Mr Mfume declared that "none of the 26 new shows have a minority in a leading or starring role".

He aded: "This glaring omission is an outrage and shameful display by network executives who are either clueless, careless or both."

Network embarrassment

It was one of the strongest indictments of TV from a civil rights group in decades. Network executives were embarrassed.

They pointed out that minorities can be seen in dramas like ER and NYPD Blue, but many agreed that the NAACP's charges had some merit.

The attack led to a rather undignified scrambling to make last minute changes to the casts of more than half a dozen network TV shows to ensure that black, Hispanic, or Asian actors were hired.

[ image: One of the exceptions: NYPD Blue's James McDaniel]
One of the exceptions: NYPD Blue's James McDaniel
The NAACP argues that it is insulting to offer quick-fix solutions by just adding a few more minority characters on-screen.

It maintains the problem goes far deeper in that the four major TV networks do not have people of colour as executives.

Critics say the vast majority of network executives are white, their world view is white, and they tend to hire producers who are also white.

The NAACP wants more African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans working behind the scenes.

To press its claims the NAACP is waging a highly effective campaign. In addition to the threat of a boycott, legal efforts against the networks are being explored.

The organisation has also bought shares in the four big networks, so it can attend board meetings and noisily voice its complaints to other shareholders.

It is also encouraging other minority watchdog groups to take action.

A Hispanic group aggrieved at the lack of Latinos in network TV is already staging its own network boycott next week.

Spreading the blame

Everyone is blaming one another. The civil rights groups say the big networks are at fault.

But programme executives say in an era of fractionalised TV audiences, it is the advertisers who are the villains because they only want to sponsor niche programming that reaches affluent white 18-34 year olds.

The NAACP has countered that blacks spend large amounts of money on products advertised on TV and they want more blacks on screen.

The film industry is hardly faring any better because minority actors say they still have to struggle to get decent roles.

Big Willie style

[ image: Will Smith: Blazing a trail in the film industry]
Will Smith: Blazing a trail in the film industry
Will Smith is one of the exceptions. He is a black star who has triumphed at the box office and destroyed the myth that African-Americans can not translate to international audiences.

But even Smith has encountered difficulties. He met resistance when he was cast in Independence Day, and in the lead role of his latest movie Wild Wild West.

He believes that America may still not be ready for a leading black man in a romantic comedy playing opposite a star like Cameron Diaz or Meg Ryan.

Civil rights groups have criticised the entertainment industry before, but there is reason to believe that the NAACP's latest initiative may be more effective.

The organisation's president, Kweisi Mfume, is extremely skillful in using the media to advance his agenda.

He also knows that the threat of a viewer boycott during the all important November "sweeps" - a four week period when audiences are measured to determine future advertising rates - will wield maximum influence on the networks because it will hit them where it hurts most - the bottom line.

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