By Erin Texeira
"The King of Queens" is set in a New York City borough where almost one in five residents is Asian American -- yet none of the CBS sitcom's regular characters is Asian. And of the dozens of regular characters in CBS' entire prime-time line-up, not one is Asian.
At most other networks, the situation is slightly better.
A study of Asian Americans in prime-time television, released Monday, shows that Asians, who make up 5 percent of the U.S. population, play 2.7 percent of regular characters. It also shows virtually no Asian actors are on situation comedies, and the characters they play in dramas tend to have less depth than most regulars, with minimal on-screen time and few romantic roles.
"Television is still the place where people get to know other people from other cultures... if they don't have regular contact with them in real life," said Karen K. Narasaki, president of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, the Washington-based civil rights group that commissioned the study. "If Asian Americans are absent, it tends to reinforce the stereotypes."
The study, conducted by sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, examined about seven weeks of prime-time programming on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB. It looked at patterns based on gender, characters' occupations and relationships and whether an actor was a multiracial Asian or wholly Asian.
Since 1999, Narasaki and other NAPALC leaders have been meeting with network executives to push for more Asian representation.
Regular "report cards" on network diversity have been issued by a coalition including NAPALC and other civil rights groups. There has been improvement in some areas but Hispanics and American Indians as well as Asians remain underrepresented, the coalition said in its most recent accounting last fall. (Whites and blacks have a disproportionately high representation, another UCLA study found.)
The scrutiny of minorities among executives, writers and actors was based on extensive anecdotal evidence. The new study provides the most rigorous data yet bolstering their concerns.
"I think we were expecting that there would be a discrepancy between white and Asian actors, just by watching television ourselves over the years," said Nancy Yuen, a UCLA doctoral candidate who headed the analysis. "But we were surprised by the extent of the discrepancy."
She added: "They're rarely on. Even if they're part of the regular cast, it's a subordinate role."
Except for one character on Fox's sketch comedy "MADtv," Asians were found solely in dramatic shows, which tend to focus on workplace settings such as law offices, police precincts and schools. For white characters, the story lines often also flesh out personal details -- family and romantic life -- that contribute to character development. Only two Asian characters in the study were depicted outside their homes, and both were portrayed by biracial actors of Asian and white heritage.
With no Asian characters, CBS had the lowest representation of on-screen Asians.
The study "focused on a small slice of the prime-time television landscape, overlooking recurring roles where CBS has made progress in diversifying casts," CBS spokesman Phil Gonzalez said, adding that "Clubhouse," a short-lived television show that aired last fall, featured Dean Cain, an actor whose father is partly Japanese.
Media observers said limited representation on-screen reverberates throughout society.
"From the viewpoint of individuals who are Asian Americans, (the low representation) says, `I don't matter -- I don't see people who look like me, my culture, my community,'" said Cristina Pieraccini, a professor of communications at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Earlier this year, she and co-author Douglass L. Alligood released a book, "Color Television: Fifty Years of African American and Latino Images on Prime Time." They had hoped to expand the analysis, but, she said, "There wasn't enough representation for us to study Asians."
The study also criticized the WB for setting "Charmed" in San Francisco, a city that is one-third Asian American, but including no Asian actors.
Network spokeswoman Pamela Morrison responded: "It's a sci-fi fantasy show, so you can't point to it as a reflection of the real world. ... They don't have a regular Asian American character, but there are guests characters."
NBC was found to be the most inclusive, with 5.7 percent of regular characters on shows such as "E.R." and the now-canceled "Hawaii" featuring Asian actors. And the study's authors particularly lauded ABC's "Lost," which has a South Asian character and a Korean married couple who speak Korean on-screen -- with English subtitles, something almost never seen on prime-time shows.
Usually, when Asians are depicted, the study showed, they are placed into roles that reinforce stereotypes, particularly that of Asians as the hyper-intelligent model minority. Though Census 2000 showed that half of Asian adults don't have college degrees, of the prime-time Asian characters whose jobs were identified, 100 percent worked in areas that highlighted their intelligence or required advanced degrees, often in the sciences.
"There is no understanding that Asians have the same hopes and dreams and struggles -- that they love their families and have to deal with crazy bosses and co-workers," Narasaki said. "I often tell the networks, I know lots of Asian families that are dysfunctional. They would be funny on a sitcom."
On the Net:
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium: www.napalc.org
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