MAXWELL:  Tune in to differences and turn off TV

7/14/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Here we go again, another well-intentioned but doomed diversity crusade, replete with threats, textbook oratory and enough political, social, historical and mythological allusions to wow an Ivy League doctoral committee on American popular culture in the 1990s.

By now, most Americans know that the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, has promised to fight the major television networks over the ethnic makeup of fall offerings.

During a rousing speech Monday to nearly 3,000 members attending the 90th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the group’s president and CEO, Kweisi Mfume, said that of the 26 new prime-time shows slated for the fall on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, not one has a minority, especially an African-American, as a leading star.

“This glaring omission is an outrage and a shameful display by network executives who are either clueless, careless or both,” Mfume said. “When the television-viewing public sits down to watch the new prime-time shows scheduled for this fall lineup, they will see a virtual whitewash in programming.”

How does Mfume propose to fix this problem _ one that I do not think needs urgent repair and one that diverts precious energy away from more pressing issues?

For starters, the NAACP will establish a watchdog arm in Tinseltown to monitor the TV and film industries. He said that, if meetings with network and advertising executives do not produce satisfaction, he may call for a boycott of these “highly segregated shows.” Mfume’s most exotic tactic would be pursuing civil action against these industries. Lawyers would base claims on the 1934 Federal Communications Act that makes the airwaves public property.

Mfume suggests that racism is to blame for the small number of blacks on prime-time TV. He is right _ indirectly. Indeed, most advertising and programming bosses are white and air material that appeals to them. Mfume seems to have forgotten, however, that prime-time TV is showbiz and that showbiz is not about social and cultural crusades. It is about mega-bucks. Nielsen ratings. Market share.

The truth is that TV executives are not “clueless” or “careless.” They know America. Surveys indicate that black shows, particularly sitcoms, and characters turn off most white viewers. With blacks constituting only 13 percent of the population and with only a tiny part of that number interested in network fare, network moguls do not see a natural need to create black shows. What is in it for them, when blacks flock to cable to see themselves?

Whites prefer upscale, white-oriented shows infused with slick repartee, such as Seinfeld, Friends and Frazier. A few years ago, they tuned in to Cheers. Why would a CBS producer, a business person, include a black headliner who turns off white viewers? On the other side, only a handful of African-Americans watch the major white sitcoms. Blacks do not like white stuff.

When will the NAACP learn that much of the cultural divide is natural, that what often seems like racism may be, in reality, a matter of being comfortable with those who resemble ourselves and share our special heritage?

Should the NAACP abandon its TV diversity crusade? No. But the organization should not make it an expensive, time-consuming priority.

Why? Nationwide, educators worry that black children, even those in the middle and upper classes, lag far behind their white counterparts academically. Harvard University researcher Ronald Ferguson, for example, tried to learn why middle-class black students at academically acclaimed Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland, while making up 50 percent of the student population, constitute 9 percent of those who graduated in the top fifth of their class but 83 percent of those in the bottom.

Among other factors, Ferguson discovered that black students watch twice as much TV as white students. Obviously, black students do not need to be lured into the silliness, black or white, on prime-time TV. They watch the tube too much already.

Yes, I know the arguments that black children need positive role models and that TV can provide them. Maybe the long hours that black children spend watching TV to learn a lesson of negligible value from a remote role model is a bad trade-off. They need to be taught to stick their faces in books, not TV screens.

I will bet that if the networks do what Mfume wants, African-Americans will regret the long-term, unintended consequences. Our children watch three hours of TV a day. Enough already.