Recent protests from minorities that prime-time television is monotonously white have registered. The networks last week fell all over themselves adding minority characters to the fall lineup.
The reaction says something about the depths of the networks' thoughtlessness: They had somehow missed the fact that thoroughgoing paleness and 1999 are not a good match. But the responsiveness also says something about the increasing clout of nonwhite Americans.
As if to highlight the networks' foolishness, the U.S. Census Bureau last week reported that slightly more than one in four people living in America is now a racial or ethnic minority. Even more striking: About two-thirds of the population growth from 1990 to 1998 was among blacks, Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics. These groups increased at six times the rate of non-Hispanic whites.
By 2015 the bureau projects, minorities will make up one-third of the population. The groups we call (with growing inappropriateness) "minorities" already constitute a majority in California, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii and the District.
It's all the more striking then that -- as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People noticed last July -- the 26 shows that were to premier this fall had not a single nonwhite leading figure. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume vowed then to speak with network executives and advertisers. He said the NAACP would buy 100 shares in ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox "so we can go to board meetings and raise the kind of hell and the issues that we think are necessary." He added: "But as sure as I'm standing here, you can bet it's going to come down to [a boycott]."
Fall came, and the effort broadened. La Raza, noting that Hispanics represent 11 percent of the population but only 2 percent of the characters on primetime, called for a two-week "brownout" of the networks.
The executives began to notice. CBS agreed that "much progress in our industry remains to be made" -- which beat "Aw, forget it," but had all the passion of "Mistakes were made."
NAACP sharpened the boycott tool, promising to bring its pressure to bear during sweeps week when viewer numbers determine ad rates.
Jesse Jackson strode into the fray, saying boycotts aren't enough: Minorities need to own and control media outlets. And, at the Emmy Awards, minority stars added their voices.
Finally, last week, the networks started hopping. NBC's "ER" added a black woman doctor. CBS's "Judging Amy" added a black bailiff and its "Family Law" added black and Hispanic law school trainees. The exceptional palefacedness that brought on all this activity was in fact a regression from the shows of the 1980s, when integration grew increasingly popular on primetime. But, as networks came under ever greater profit pressure, they began to respond to figures showing different audiences for shows with black characters and white characters.
In 1997, for example, "Seinfeld" -- noticeably lacking in minorities -- was No. 1 among white households, but 50th in African American homes. Meanwhile, "Between Brothers" was tops in black households, 112th in white homes.
Network executives figured they were, after all, business people, not do-gooders. "I don't think anybody's crying out for integrated shows" was last year's sentiment from Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces shows for several networks. "By pursuing advertisers and demographics rather than a mass audience, the networks have declared they don't need blacks in their audience," she told a reporter.
Now that it turns out someone has cried out, the response has been significant -- and probably not because the network execs suddenly turned into social reformers. What seems likelier is that they glimpsed the increasing presence and power of minorities.
Consider that, among America's kids, minorities already represent one-third. Their purchasing choices differ dramatically from those of their parents (think rap). As the New Yorker pointed out recently, Tommy Hilfiger has built a $3.2 billion company, "largely because he was the first white designer to realize . . . that white kids would buy what black kids bought, not the other way around."
Yet this fall's lineup had started out both remarkably white and remarkably elitist. As Talk magazine said recently, what had been a trend in TV toward "documenting the lives of ordinary Americans" had turned this season into a reflection of "the interests of the cultural elite -- those of the entertainment industry in particular."
Navel-gazing rarely has made for good business. Have the Big Four been shaken out of it?
That will be interesting to watch.