ETHNIC groups condemn TV networks over diversity

Friday, May 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A coalition of ethnic groups condemned the major television networks on Thursday for failing to achieve diversity in programming and said a boycott or other measures may be needed.

``The time for talking is fast coming to an end,'' attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. told a news conference by phone.

More than a year ago, the coalition secured agreements from the four major networks to increase both the number of minorities on-screen as well as development deals with writers and producers.

The coalition released a ``report card'' Thursday grading the networks' efforts. The lowest overall mark was a D-minus for ABC.

``It seems ABC has actually gone in the wrong direction,'' said Esteban Torres, chairman of the coalition that's been pressing to improve the TV picture.

Other overall grades: D-plus for CBS, C-minus for Fox and C for NBC. In the coalition's first report card last November, the networks received mostly Ds.

Network executives didn't attend the news conference at the offices of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

Afterward, CBS said its on-air representation of minorities in leading or recurring roles has nearly doubled between 1999 and 2001. Josie Thomas, the network's senior vice president for diversity, said CBS prime-time dramas, comedies, news and reality programming this fall is slated to include 53 minorities compared to 29 in the fall of 1999.

``Clearly, there is much work to be done to better reflect our nation's many cultures, particularly that of Latinos,'' Thomas said. ``But in the 18 months since we began our dialogue with the coalition, our commitment to diversity is both quantifiable and significant.''

ABC spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said her network is increasing ethnic representation in prime time by 39 percent and in its overall schedule by 18 percent next season, with changes planned in new series that will further boost diversity.

``We are disappointed that the coalition has misrepresented ABC's record,'' she said.

``ABC has ethnically diverse lead characters that are portrayed as positive role models, which we consider critical toward promoting true diversity,'' Mucha added, pointing to such examples as ``NYPD Blue's'' new Hispanic police lieutenant (played by Esai Morales).

The coalition includes groups representing blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and American Indians. In compiling the report, it examined shows that aired during the past season and series planned for fall.

``It's even worse than any of us thought,'' said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Each network also received grades in specific areas from individual groups.

The American Indians in Film & Television gave ABC an F for its effort to include that ethnic group in programming. CBS was lauded for an upcoming series, ``Wolf Lake,'' which features American Indian actor Graham Greene, but still received only a D-plus from the Indian group.

The NAACP, which is part of the coalition, and other members said they will consider stronger steps to prod the networks to make progress.

``A boycott? A legal action? Maybe both?'' said Torres, adding: ``We are going to talk tactics.''

An announcement could be made during the NAACP's national convention in July, he said.

While releasing its first report last November, the coalition said major broadcast networks had included more blacks in their shows but otherwise failed to live up to agreements to provide more ethnically diverse programming.

The networks first opened negotiations with civil rights groups after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People floated the threat of a TV boycott or legal action because of the lack of minority actors on the fall 1999 schedule of new shows.

According to a survey released earlier this month by the advocacy group Children Now, the number of black characters in network series increased from the 1999-2000 TV season to the 2000-01 from 13 percent to 17 percent; Hispanics dropped from 3 percent to 2 percent; Asian-American characters increased from 2 percent to 3 percent.

By comparison, blacks and Hispanics each make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population and Asian-Americans 3.6 percent, according to 2000 census figures.