Lots of luck, Kweisi.
I am referring, of course, to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (whom I know a bit) and his efforts to get the television networks to feature African Americans in their shows. Of the 26 new shows slated for airing in the fall, not a one has a black person in a lead role, and only a few show any blacks at all.
As a result, Mfume said, the NAACP might sue. (Who? Where? How?) He says the organization's Hollywood branch will monitor the industry, and he has called for congressional hearings -- meaning we will get sound bites about sound bites.
I cheer Mfume on for two reasons. The first is that I favor diversity. The second is that I, as politicians are wont to say, have a dog in this fight. Maybe if Mfume can get the networks to add some black faces to the TV lineup, they could do the same for the un-young. I am talking about those of us over the age of 35 whom -- not to put too fine a point on it -- the networks don't give a damn about. I take that personally.
The sad irony is that blacks and aging whites have something in common: They watch too much television. African American households average a bit over 70 hours of television per week, 20 more than non-black households. The elderly have similar viewing habits. That means they're easy -- a cheap date. They'll watch almost anything.
That's not the case with younger viewers -- young, white viewers, to be precise. Not only are they legendary in their spending powers and supposedly just-forming brand loyalties but also they are much harder to attract as an audience. It appears they have what is sometimes called "a life." While older people are watching television, this age group is doing something else. (What? Where?) This is why this group is targeted. This is why almost no one on prime-time television suffers from short-term memory loss.
If Mfume can sue, can the AARP sue as well? If the airwaves belong to the people, why can't the people see all sorts of people on the air? The reason, as Mfume must know, is not that the networks are immoral but that they are amoral. Network chiefs are not bigots. They're businesspeople. They would program for dogs and cats if they thought they could make money at it.
Diversity, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing. I'm not sure blacks need role models from prime-time television, but it sure is good for whites to see blacks with whom they can identify. But the audience is fragmenting. "The Cosby Show" appealed to both black and white viewers. The newer black shows are much more racially specific. The No. 1 show among whites is "Friends." It ranks 88th among blacks. The No. 1 black show is "The Steve Harvey Show." It's 127th among whites.
Once, American families sat before a single TV set and watched the same program. Now everyone goes to his or her own room and watches what he or she pleases. Once America spent its mornings talking about the TV shows the night before. We were one audience -- an audience that watched Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and Bill Cosby.
Berle at his peak in the early 1950s had an incredible 81 percent of the audience. Cosby got 53 percent in the mid-1980s, but no show has come close since. "Seinfeld" was as big as a show gets nowadays, but it got only 33 percent of the audience -- and not much of it African American, by the way. As for "Ally McBeal," it peaked at only 14 percent of the audience in the 1998-99 season. Do not discuss Calista Flockhart around the water cooler. Many people won't know what you're talking about.
There's no sense yearning for the good old days. They're not coming back. On the contrary, we are on the road to 500 channels and, of course, the infinite choices of the Internet -- maybe the only place where you can find another person who watched what you did the night before. Community, at least our traditional sense of it, is being shattered.
But the networks still have the largest share of the audience -- not to mention profits -- and they are all subsidiaries of even larger organizations. They have an obligation to portray America as the racially (not to mention generationally) diverse nation that it is. Mfume may not have much of a legal case, but his moral one is airtight. Prime-time TV shows don't look like America. Instead, they look like the people who create them.