(WOMENSENEWS)–Janet Vega, 23, remembers watching the stars on television while she was growing up and wanting to be part of the cast of one of the TV sitcoms, like “The Brady Bunch” or “Diff’rent Strokes.”
“I always thought a Mexican woman would spice things up,” she said. “But one day I told my sister and she was, like, ‘Give that up. Mexicans can’t make it on TV. Have you ever seen any on TV?’
“And it hit me–she’s right. As much as you try, you can’t make it. That’s when I changed my dream.”
The parade of people on Janet’s prime-time television screen hasn’t changed that much since she was a child, according to a study released last week by Children Now, a child policy and advocacy organization.
And the low–and falling–representation of Latinas and Latinos comes at a time when the latest U.S. Census figures show that Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. And experts report that media portrayals are crucial in shaping viewers’ attitudes about themselves and of diverse groups.
In All Prime-Time Programs This Season, Only Five Latinas on the Screen
“If a young Latina is watching television on prime time and somehow managed to watch all the prime-time shows for this season on all the channels, she would see only five Latinas on the screen–and the majority of them are cast in service roles,” said Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now.
Responding to the report, Meryl Marshall-Daniels, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, said: “I think there have been strides. I wouldn’t exaggerate the level of progress, but I think that certainly there is a consciousness now and an awareness that changes are necessary.” She is an independent television producer.
Major networks declined to comment.
The second annual study of the six broadcast networks’ current television season, entitled “Fall Colors 2000-01,” found that while improvements have been made in programming, particularly later at night, the “family hour,” which starts at 8 p.m. East Coast time, was the least racially diverse hour on television.
However, only one in eight of the programs broadcast during this hour has diverse opening-credit casts–in contrast to the 10 p.m. slot, in which two-thirds of the programs have diverse opening credits.
The television executive Marshall-Daniels called that analysis problematic in itself.
Marshall-Daniels took issue with the “family hour” critique, saying the television industry itself “doesn’t identify the eight o’clock hour as a family hour. … That time is not programmed for children.”
Cable stations like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel already are supplying family programming during that time period, she said, acknowledging that crucial hour on prime-time television could be “more reflective of the universe in which it plays.”
Prime Time Dominated by 30-Year-Old Single, White, Handsome, Smart, Sexy Males
Children Now found that the universe on prime-time television is one dominated by 30-year-old single, white men who are good-looking, intelligent and desirable.
“When we talk about women,” Salisbury said, “this has really not changed. It is still two-thirds men and one-third women.” Men make up 65 percent of the prime-time population.
Of the non-white characters, African Americans are the second largest group represented, accounting for 17 percent, while Asian-Pacific Americans account for 3 percent. And these characters, Salisbury said, are usually lower-status roles.
“People of color didn’t play the main character roles. Most often they were playing secretaries, maids, drivers and assistants.”
When it comes to Latinos, they are almost invisible, and the chances of Janet Vega seeing a face similar to her own during the 8 p.m. hour have gone down in the past year. Latinos accounted for 3 percent of the total characters in the previous year. This year’s study puts them at 2 percent.
In recent years, pressure has been put on the entertainment industry to decrease violence, increase diversity and reflect gender accurately on both the big and the small screens. From politicians to pediatricians to the advocacy organizations, the attention has had an impact.
As a result of public and political pressure, the Children’s Television Act of 1996 laid out specific requirements for programming. Stations are now required to broadcast three hours daily of regularly scheduled programs labeled “educational and informational” between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
But the definitions of what is educational and informational are vague and subjective. And there are no regulations requiring television to reflect the racial or gender make-up of society.
Still, most advocates and academics are clear about the influence that television has on people’s perceptions–particularly children’s perceptions.
Media Crucial in Shaping Attitudes About Self, Diverse Groups
The 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Kids and Media at the New Millennium,” of more than 3,000 children ages 2 to18, found that children spend an average of nearly three hours a day watching television, most of that time without adult supervision. Among children eight and older, a quarter of them are spending more than five hours a day in front of the television.
“Our research and the research of social scientists tell us kids come away with three clear messages from television,” Salisbury said. “It tells them who is important, it tells them whether people like them or respect them, and it tells them who they can become.”
And when it comes to race, viewers look to television and movies to form their opinions, according to the 1998 report to the advisory board for the President’s Initiative on Race. In that report, Robert M. Entman of North Carolina State University wrote that the media’s portrayal of race is probably the most important factor people use when they form opinions of other races and shape their own racial identity.
“The implicit and explicit messages are transmitted, but the media help to shape the attitudes, assumptions, anxieties, and hopes that people in each group have about themselves and those belonging to other groups,” Entman wrote. “People categorized as Asian, Afro-American or Black, Latino, and White or Euro-American learn much about the meaning of those categories from the media, perhaps more than they learn from any other source.”
Still, the situation is not hopeless, according to Salisbury and Marshall-Daniels.
“I think most of the entertainment industry is motivated by two things on the positive side: profits and risk aversion,” Salisbury said.
“And there is a profitable story to be found around inclusion. We are seeing that in some of the programs, like ‘Buffy, the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Moesha,'” she said. “We also know that publicity does take its toll.”
“We have seen some changes,” added Marshall-Daniels. “There has been an evolution, and hopefully we will see even more changes in the fall schedule. But I think the advocates have been helpful in holding up a mirror and requiring the industry to make changes.
“Television is a dialogue between the audience and the creator, and the audience has to speak up to make sure that the programs reflect its taste and its choices.”
Susy Schultz is a writer based in Chicago and an adjunct professor teaching graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
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