Why does it matter how (and which) people are portrayed in television shows?

Almost a decade ago, authors Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ("Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience,") found that watching television has a profound impact on average Americans, in part because they spend so much time doing it and also because it is "the cheapest and most immediately available escape imaginable." More recently, an Atlantic Monthly article described media scholar George Gerbner as believing that TV had risen to the level of a "modern-day religion," with its power to inform and control. Studies conducted Gerbner, the former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, have found that excessive TV viewing can give people a distorted view of the world around them (the depiction of crime and violence against minorities, women and the poor being more prevalent on TV than it is in real life, for example).

Average Americans certainly seem to care about televised depictions that are balanced. In an ABC/Washington Post poll of 1,137 randomly selected adults, conducted in the summer of 1997, participants were asked:

Is it a good thing or a bad thing for there to be entertainment programs on network television whose main characters are all, or almost all, whites?

GOOD BAD NEITHER NO OPINION

ALL 31 33 33 3

WHITES 32 29 35 4

BLACKS 24 51 21 4

... television whose main characters are all, or almost all, blacks?

GOOD BAD NEITHER NO OPINION

ALL 48 23 25 4

WHITES 48 20 28 4

BLACKS 49 35 14 1

... whose main characters include a mix of people of different races?

GOOD BAD NEITHER NO OPINION

ALL 87 4 7 2

WHITES 86 5 7 2

BLACKS 94 3 3 1