Extremism in the pursuit of fairness may not be a vice, exactly, but it can get people a little giddy. The Civil Rights Commission's report on women and minorities in television, released Monday, seems to suggest that truth would have been better served on TV these past few years if Mary Richards had called boss Lou Grant by his first name and Edith Bunker had told husband Archie to stifle himself when he ordered her into the kitchen to fetch him a beer.
"Window Dressing on the Set," the commission's 181-page report, makes a strong and probably important case for improving minority hiring practices at local stations and networks. But first it dallies a little deliriously in the delicate realm of who is stereotyped more than whom on TV shows.
"The women in situation comedies still tend to be subordinate to the men in their lives," the report states. "Mary (Tyler Moore) calls her boss 'Mr. Grant' even though everyone else calls him 'Lou'." Mary Tyler Moore was on her way out the door in Los Angeles when asked about this yesterday but managed to say through a spokesman that she thought it was "kind of silly" to use this as an example of female stereotyyping.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in fact did a few episodes in which Grant all bur ordered Richards to call him "Lou," but it was in the nature of the Mary Richards character that she just couldn't bring herself to do it.
As for Edith Bunker on "All in the Family," the report scowls that she "scoots into the kitchen to fetch Archie a beer and rarely fails to have dinner on the table by 6 p.m."
Producer Norman Lear said yesterday that this hardly qualifies Edith to be a stereotypical subordinate female, and that is fact she is clearly woman with a mind, will and purpose of her own.
"In human behavior, some things are absolutely reflexive," Lear said. "Edith gets that beer lovingly for Archie. But she doesn't take and guff when her own interests are involved. Getting Archie a beer when he wants it is not a top priority for her; it's just something she does."
Lear thinks that if you went back over "All in the Family" from 1970 to 1977, "You could probably trace the whole women's movement just following Edith Bunker, Mary Tyler Moore, and Rhoda and Ann in "One Day at a Time" began as independent women but Edith has slowly emerged. She was dominated by Archie at first but she slowly, gradually become undominated.
Early shows in the program's forthcoming season will include an episode in which Archie must postpone a planned trip to a vacation lodge because Edith has promised an elderly couple at the home for the aged where she works that she'll appear at their wedding.
"She stands her ground and the studio audience cheered for her," Lear says.
The season opener will be an episode in which a female cousin of Edith's dies, leaving behind a valuable silver tea set. Archie wants the tea set, but Edith learns that the cousin had been living for years with another woman; "It's like we were married," the woman tells Edith. So Edith insists that the tea set go to her as the actual next of kin. And it does.
On the matter of racial stereotyping, the report is stuck with some fairly dated data; its latest figures are from 1975. Tony Brown, executive producer of the long-running "Black Journal" on public TV, says of the report, "They're making a little too much out of the alleged stereotyping on television. Naturally television tends to stereotype everybody somewhat because the sponsors are going after demographic groups.
"I cannot in good conscience say there hasn't been an improvement in the image of blacks on TV in the past few years, partly because of the tremendous impact of "Roots'."
This does not mean the millennium is at hand. We're still talking about television, after all.
"I don't think the industry, reflects blacks as well as it could," Brown says, "and that is because blacks still are not represented at top management levels. Certain decisions are still made in an all-white room - an all-white male room at that."
It's this aspect of the report that has the most punch - the case that television offers a white male-dominated view of the world because white males dominate its decision-making structure. The Federal Communications Commission is supposedly enforcing Equal Employment Opportunity regulations that could change this imbalance, but the report blasts the FCC for its "lack of real commitment to nondiscrimination and equal employment opportunity."
FCC chairman Richard E. Wiley is quit agitated over such charges. "Frankly, the staff has just thrown up their hands in frustration over this report," he said. "We've got an effective program, and broadcasters tell me if we go any farther with this thing, we'll get into quotas. And we're not going to recommend quotas. It's just contrary to my philosophy."
Helen Franzwa, project director of the report, counters, "Our commission is on the record as not advocating a quota system. But we do maintain that women and men of each racial group should be employed at each station in reasonable proportion to their availability in the local force."
The report advocates giving the FCC authority to enforce minority hiring regulations at television networks as well as local stations. By law, the FCC can now only regulate individual stations. But that law, the Communication Act of 1934, is now being rewritten on Capitol Hill. It's a distinct possibility that network immunity in such issues may be headed for extinction.
The wider, more provocative issue raised by the report is whether television programming should reflect the world as it is or offer viewers a lovely world-that-should-be; whether any character who is a member of any racial, sexual, ethnic or religious minority must be required to serve as a representative of the whole group. It sounds like a recipe for a boring universe of faultless ciphers.
"We'r suggesting that these characters are role models whether anyone wants them to be or not," Franzwa says. "People learn from them; they get a lot of information about certain kinds of groups from what they see on television. Children develop lots of ideas about minorities from television, especially if they don't have actual contact with them. All we're really saying is, it has an impact."
On the other side of that argument, perhaps lies a rather preposterous statement made in June by Robert Wussler, president of the CBS television network. "Television should not be a leader of society," Wussler said. "It should always remain a half or three-quarter of a step behind society."
Lear says he remembers the day Wussler's remark was published. "I walked into the office, called in all our writers, held up the newspaper and said, 'Fellas, we're going to have a hard time being any funnier than this today.'"