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Ethnic 'Report Card' Faults Networks

(BPI) The four major TV networks have made "some progress" during the past year toward increasing the number of black actors, writers, directors and executives they employ, but the networks received failing and near-failing grades for their continued underemployment of other ethnic minorities, according to a "report card" issued Tuesday by the NAACP and a coalition of minority groups.

In February, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a coalition of groups representing Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans signed "historic" agreements with the networks that were designed to increase jobs for minorities in front of and behind the cameras.

On Tuesday, at a packed news conference at the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists' offices in Los Angeles, representatives of the coalition issued reports that showed that blacks are doing considerably better in Hollywood than their Latino, Asian American, and Native American counterparts.

"Our assessment of this fall season's shows is essentially that some progress was made, but we still have a long, long way to go," NAACP official Debbie Liu said. "It is our understanding that particularly African- Americans in the television industry have enjoyed better access to on-air opportunities and to production, writing, and directing positions. We have also seen some beginning plans to establish long-term pipelines for people of color on the executive side. But this by no means means that the playing field has been leveled."

At NBC, she said, "the number of on-air African-Americans increased by 14%. The number of behind-the-camera talent in the writing and producing positions increased from 6 to 16."

At CBS, she said, "the network added five African-Americans in directing positions and six African-Americans in staff writing positions" during the 2000-01 season.

At ABC, she said, "on-air talent increased by three more African- Americans," though she said "no notable progress" has been made there for black writers, producers and directors.

At Fox, despite the addition of several shows featuring black actors, Liu said "the number of minority actors and minority writers has actually stayed the same for the 2000 season, and the number of minority directors has decreased." This, she said, "is extremely disappointing."

The NAACP, she said, has been "encouraged by the progress of some networks over others, but there is a long, long way to go. As such, our encouragement comes with guarded caution given the appalling lack of progress of every network to measurably further, in any way, opportunities for Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans, and Native Americans. It is lamentable that this season has seen marked improvement for African- Americans in some respect, yet there has been little to no improvement for other people of color."

The NAACP, she said, "has taken particular note of this dichotomy and sincerely hopes that any progress which has been enjoyed by African- Americans in this past year has not been at the cost of progress for our Latino, Asian and Native American brothers and sisters."

Other members of the coalition threatened legal action against the networks if they don't see some improvement soon.

"We're not happy," former Con-gressman Esteban Torres said. "We've made some progress, but we haven't made enough, and we have to make sure that they understand that."

Esteban, who heads the National Latino Media Council, said, "We want to bring a little heat to their feet." Specifically, he said he is considering filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if the numbers don't improve.

National Council of La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre said, "ABC has the lowest total overall number of Latino actors in primetime of any network, with just four recurring roles."

CBS, he said, "has one of the two highest Latino actor totals among the networks." CBS, he said, "has shown improvement behind the scenes" with increased numbers of Latino directors, producers, and writers.

Fox "has just five Latino actors among its shows," he said, but one of those is "the highest-profile new Latino actor on television and the only lead Latino character — Jessica Alba on 'Dark Angel.' "

NBC, meanwhile, "continues to have the highest total number of Latino actor/characters of any network — nine, an increase of one from 1999-2000," he said. NBC, however, "does not have a Latino writer or director on any of its primetime shows."

Yzaguirre said that "despite some rays of hope, this season is an unqualified disappointment for the Latino community."

Asian-American groups also are unhappy with the lack of progress being made.

"CBS gets a flunking grade," National Asian Pacific American Consortium executive director Karen Narasaki said. "The primetime exclusion of Asian-Pacific Americans at CBS is, in fact, worse this year than the whitewash last year. CBS canceled 'Martial Law,' the only show on any of the major networks that had an Asian American in a starring role. None of the new shows features an Asian American in a lead or permanent and significant supporting role, despite the fact that 'Bette' is shot in Los Angeles and 'Welcome to New York' is in New York City — both among the most diverse cities in the world."

Narasaki gave ABC and Fox a "D minus" for their employment of Asian Americans and gave NBC a "D plus" because "NBC has two Asian-Pacific Americans with significant roles in the new fall shows" — one of which has been canceled.

American Indians, meanwhile, remain virtually invisible on network television.

"We are off the graph; we are off the percentages," American Indians in Film and Television president Sonny Skyhawk said.

Even so, Skyhawk acknowledged that "some good-faith efforts have been made, and some positive steps have been taken."

NBC has been at the forefront in considering the American Indian in its programming, recruitment and procurement considerations, with Fox on the verge of implementing ways to best meet their commitment. CBS will set an example with its primetime release of an American Indian-themed show set to premiere Sunday entitled 'The Lost Child,' featuring an array of talented American-Indian actors. As we see it, judging by its performance to date, ABC is the only network that has yet to demonstrate to our community any substantive effort, but again, we remain optimistic that they too will eventually see the value of our collaboration."

The networks, meanwhile, said they are making marked improvement on the diversity front.

"Diversity remains an important initiative at ABC," said ABC vp human resources John Rose, who oversees diversity initiatives for the network. "We have made significant progress, but we agree that more needs to be done, and we have initiated new programs to expand opportunities."

Rose said, "Although the number of on-air minority actors in our primetime series has increased from last year, more important is the fact that the roles are positive ones." Among those, he said, are the roles played by black actors Steve Harris and LisaGay Hamilton on "The Practice" and Andre Braugher's leading role in the new medical drama "Gideon's Crossing."

NBC, meanwhile, said it "is proud of the strides our network has made in increasing diversity on air and behind-the-scenes. We thank the coalition for its recognition of our progress. We are taking positive steps to recruit minorities employees by creating and im-proving programs that encourage careers in broadcast television. We remain committed to our continuing efforts in increasing minority representation companywide."

CBS Television Senior VP Diversity Josie Thomas said: "CBS appreciates the ongoing concerns of the coalition and applauds its role as an agent for change in our industry. ... Compared with last season, we have enhanced our diversity record in several important ways, including an approximate 20% increase in the number of minorities cast in our primetime entertainment programs, a threefold increase in minority executive producers working on primetime entertainment programs (and) a 150% increase in minority directors working on primetime entertainment programs."

David Robb writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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