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Jewish World Review Aug. 16, 1999 /4 Elul, 5759

Don Feder

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Blacks aren't the only one dissed by the networks -- A FEW WEEKS HENCE, the new TV season will be upon us. A few weeks ago, the debate was about diversity on television (at its most simplistic -- racial representation).

Of the 26 pilots to be unveiled by the four networks, none has a minority character, the quota cops charge. Give us more African-Americans, fumes NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, or we'll give you boycotts and lawsuits. Sigh. In the first place, for the big screen, Hollywood goes to absurd lengths to cast blacks in leading roles -- witness locating a black federal marshal in the post-Civil War era in "Wild, Wild West."

In courtroom dramas, it's almost de rigueur for the judge to be black (frequently a black woman, a twofer). Cop stories must have a black police chief or chief of detectives. A white cop is almost invariably assigned a black partner.

HBO can hardly make a made-for-TV movie that isn't about blacks ("The Tuskegee Airmen," "Rosewood," "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "The Josephine Baker Story").

New series aside, black characters on television approximate the percentage of blacks in the population. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, which tracks such things, found a steady rise in the number of blacks on series, from less than 1 percent in 1955-64 to a high of 18 percent in 1992-93.

That fell to 10 percent during the 1998-99 season; but it's still close to the black proportion of the population (13 percent). By contrast, Hispanics, who are 12 percent of Americans, are nearly nonexistent on entertainment television, as are Asians.

One in four Americans is an evangelical Christian. Less than 2 percent are homosexual. Guess which you're more likely to encounter in a comedy series? Anyway, does Mfume ever ask himself how putting more blacks on television will mitigate the problem of deteriorating urban schools, the inner-city drug epidemic, the black illegitimacy crisis or high unemployment among black youth? Probably not.

So the NAACP thinks minorities are under-represented in TV land? Well, they're not the only ones.

Television reflects the world according to Sunset Blvd. The attitudes and values of entertainment television are those of the producers, studio executives and stars who commit television.

I haven't counted heads lately, but something tells me there are far more blacks on prime-time television than, say, conservatives, or Baptists, or Vietnam veterans who are sober, responsible citizens, or career military officers who are noble, or ethical pharmaceutical firms, or stock brokers who aren't motivated solely by mammon.

All exist in real life. So why don't we see them on the networks?

When was the last time you saw a series about a character who takes religion seriously (an Orthodox Jew, a Catholic loyal to Rome or a Mormon) and is the better for it?

About as often as you'll find a conservative character sympathetically portrayed. Prime-time TV's stereotypical conservatives are either ignorant, loud-mouthed bigots (a la Archie Bunker) or superficial, materialistic snobs (like Alex in "Family Ties.")

Slightly -- but only slightly -- more common than non-loathsome conservatives are traditional families.

TV has single, career women, cohabitating couples, the divorced, friends sharing living space, odd couples and threesomes, but woefully few families composed of mom, dad and kids.

How about a few (just a few) heterosexual male characters who aren't weak, vain, foolish, pathetic, and constantly put-down, put in their place and generally one-upped by female characters?

Speaking of which, wouldn't it be nice to encounter a series with kids who weren't wisecracking, foulmouthed and constantly zinging their parents? And don't hold your breath waiting for a sit-com that pokes fun at ecologists, New-Agers, vegetarians, animal-rights kooks, anti-smoking fascists, minority racists, liberal politicians, gay activists and political correctness.

This would be a refreshing change from almost every comedy series on television that goes for laughs by ridiculing the Catholic Church, corporate executives, televangelists, the NRA, Trent Lott and Rush Limbaugh.

The NAACP says television doesn't reflect reality. Hardly a revolutionary insight.

While certain of us obsess about the number of blacks on prime-time series, too little attention is paid to the lack of cultural diversity, values diversity and ideas diversity on the idiot box. Where it really counts, television is truly monochromatic.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate