EXECUTIVE SUITE, that MGM TV flop of last season, might have been a hit if it had been set at a television network instead of a chemical company. But then that might have made life a bit uncomfortable for the television networks. Executive suites there are country clubs all to themselves. Women and blacks are still having a hard time gaining entree. The same problem exists, to a lesser degree, at local TV stations.
This was the most damaging contention of the report on women and minorities in television. "Window Dressing on the Set," issued last week by the Civil Rights Commission. Though the report itself had its muddled moments and relied on statistics not always crispy-fresh, it brought the problem of unequal employment opportunity in broadcasting into new focus and shed some light on why our television view of the world remains too narrow, unresponsive and glib.
In the process, the commission also succeeded in embarrassing the bejeebers out of the Federal Communications Commission, which has long had an equal employment opportunity (EEO) program but which has been "overly cautious," the report states, about enforcing it. The FCC has persistently demonstrated blind faith in relying on "good faith" efforts of broadcasters to remedy crucial grievances. "Window Dressing" may have enough impact on Capitol Hill to bring about closer congressional scrutiny and needed expansion of the FCC's efforts.
The FCC's history of dealing with racial discrimination in broadcasting is nothing to be proud of. The report offers a sobering rerun of the infamous WLBT case of 1964, when a Jackson, Miss, station broadcast outright racist material the terms "negra" and "nigger" were routinely applied to "black newsmakers" in newscasts, the report notes) and aired only pro-segregationist opinions. After considerably hemming, hawing and mild knuckle rapping, the FCC, incredibly, granted the station's owners a three-year license renewal anyway.
It took a federal district court appeal to reverse that decision and take away WLBT's license to operate. The court disgreed that the station's performance had been in "the public interest," which the FCC is supposed to make sure is served.
You could call the case ancient history, but only recently the FCC was overruled again in court on a discrimination-related matter. This time the FCC sought to exempt a large number of small radio and TV stations from having to comply with its EEO provisions. According to the Citizens Communications Center in Washington, on of several groups filing briefs against the FCC in this action, the stations the FCC wanted to exempt from EEO compliance "(are) responsible for 41.7 per cent of the entry-level job opportunities, where most minorities and women begin" in broadcasting.
A New York Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the FCC and said even samll radio and TV stations should be brought into compliance with EEO standards.
Earlier this year, a Court of Appeals in Washington reversed FCC rulings on three separate EEO'related cases. In one, the court found that the FCC had renewed the license of a Richmond TV station whose staff was at most 1.5 per cent black in an area where blacks made up 25 per cent of the total work force. The station's license had been challenged on minority hiring grounds by the Black Broadcasting Coalition of Richmond, but the FCC hadn't even given the group a hearing.
The court was "sharply critical of the commission procedures" in that case, Broadcasting Magazine reported.
Why does the FCC seem so laggardly in enforcing its own EEO rules? We asked that question of FCC legal counsel Roderick K. Porter last week and he declined comment. Nor would he comment on a report that the FCC has on its staff only six people assigned to enforce EEO regulations for all the radio and television stations in the United States.
Earlier, FCC Chairman Richard E. Wiley insisted there has been "substantial gradual improvement" in minority hiring within the broadcast industry since the FCC's EEO plan went into effect. Later, in a statement responding to the Civil Rights-Commission's attack, Wiley said, "There has been a continuing increase in minority and female employment in the broadcasting industry ..." and, "We expect our licencess to make reasonable and good-faith efforts to seek out and employ minorities and women ..."
More blind faith in good faith.
CBS vice president Bill Leonard was among the network executives responding with defenses against the report's charges. Leonard's statement said that "46 per cent of CBS employees are women. Sixteen per cent belong to minority groups."
But of course hauling out statistics like that, or merely saying that minority hiring has increased, misses the point by a country mile. The point is that women and minority-group members may be getting hired, but they have a devil of a time gaining access to those rooms at the top, the white male country club that runs television.
"Women and minorities are not being fully utilized at all levels of station management nor in all levels of the stations' operations," the report's figures show. "White males hold the vast majortiy of the crucial decision making positions within each job category and within each department of the stations' organizations. This finding is particularly important with regard to programming because of the potential impact of television programs on American society."
The Civil Rights Commission report may be the key that opens the door to the executive suites at last.