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Jewish World Review Aug. 25, 1999 /13 Elul, 5759

Michael Medved

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NAACP attacks the wrong TV target --
NEARLY ALL PEOPLE OF GOOD WILL can instinctively sympathize with recent NAACP demands for more black characters on network TV. But few commentators have bothered to explain how success in this admirable endeavor would actually benefit the African American community.

Imagine for a moment that all of the nation's broadcast executives take boycott and legal threats of NAACP head Kweisi Mfume instantly to heart. They immediately agree to multiply many times over the number of people of color depicted on prime time TV series. Suddenly, the percentage of black protagonists soars to more than 20%-- well beyond the 13% of the population identified as African American.

But as part of this happy fantasy, also assume that everything else about network television's offerings remains exactly the same-the same crudeness, rudeness, mindlessness, sniggering sex references, immaturity, exploitation and emphasis on instant gratification. Would merely adjusting the skin color of some prominent characters significantly alter the nature of television itself-and automatically improve its impact on black people?

Consider the question another way by looking at TV as it exists today. Broadcasters vastly over-represent the members of the white middle class-who comprise, by most counts, more than 85% of the fictional people whose lives are dramatized on the big four networks. Does this over-representation mean that TV therefore exerts a positive influence for white middle class kids, and that their parents should welcome the more than three hours a day (on average) that their children devote to the tube?

More and more parents of all races have come to think of network TV as a broken-down, poorly designed, rust-encrusted, pollution-belching jalopy. Establishing more ethnic diversity among television characters may provide the clunky old car with a spiffy new two-tone paint job, but it would do nothing to correct the more serious problems under the hood. The pathetic machine still would run just as clumsily, and spew the same noxious exhaust fumes into the environment.

How, for instance, would black children (or anyone else) gain if "Men Behaving Badly" guiltily agreed to add more black members to its cast? One of the relatively few recent shows with a black main character provoked passionate protests from the very community that it attempted to represent. "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" (on UPN) focused on a fictitious, African-American White House aide to President Lincoln, but offended everyone with its joking references to slavery and its putrid, impenetrable witlessness. Adding more "authentic" black characters, or even more black writers and producers, would do nothing to redeem such a patently defective product-or to lessen its insulting and mind-numbing impact on everyone unlucky enough to watch it.

By focusing on the racial identity of creative personnel, the NAACP only serves to distract attention from far more urgent and pressing problems concerning the relationship of the African-American community to the TV industry.

The sad fact is that even with the appalling under-representation of black people on network TV, African-Americans already watch more television than white people. The most recent figures from Nielsen Media Research suggest that black families watch an average of 40% more TV than whites - turning to the tube in every segment of the weekly schedule more frequently than any other ethnic group. One can partially explain these figures in terms of higher African-American rates of unemployment, providing more time available for viewing-especially during the day. Higher rates of poverty also play a role-since in every poor people of every race generally watch more TV than those in the middle class or above.

It's easy to understand why overdosing on television would be a result of poverty, but we should face the fact that it's also a contributing cause. Someone who's spending 30 hours a week (and sometimes much more) watching the tube will predictably lack the time and energy needed for economic or educational advancement.

And even among privileged, successful African-American families, too much television remains a critical problem. Ronald F. Ferguson, a researcher at Harvard, has been surveying students at Shaker Heights High School outside of Cleveland, an academically acclaimed school where both white and black families can be classified as solidly middle class and upper middle class. In attempting to explain why black students perform far worse academically than their white classmates, despite similar economic backgrounds, Ferguson suggests: "Black kids watch twice as much TV as white kids; three hours a day as opposed to one-and-a-half hours a day."

The most questionable aspect of the NAACP's new initiative is that if it succeeds in its ambitious goal of bringing more black characters to the networks, it may well result in even higher levels of African-American television addiction-making the fundamental problem worse, rather than helping to solve it. Instead of pressuring the networks to expose more black characters, Kweisi Mfume might have encouraged black parents to impose more restrictions on the amount of time their children waste on TV.

Recognizing that television programming is insulting, often idiotic and yes, shamefully unrepresentative, the nation's premier civil rights organization could have helped to organize the one sort of boycott that could immediately benefit the black community. Instead of waiting for the broadcasters to change, African-American families-and all families, for that matter - can instantly change the dynamic in their own homes by consciously committing themselves to watching less TV.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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©1999, Michael Medved