Science + Technology

African Americans Remain Overrepresented on Television and Concentrated in Situation Comedies, UCLA Study Finds


Despite calls for morediversity on prime-time network television, African Americans continued to beoverrepresented and concentrated in situation comedies while other ethnicgroups remained underrepresented, according to a new UCLA study.

African Americans andAnglo Americans represented 92 percent of all prime-time characters in thestudy, yet they comprise 82 percent of the nation's population. In contrast,Latinos were the most underrepresented group in prime-time television. Theyaccounted for 2 percent of all characters, although their national populationis 12.5 percent. Asian Americans comprised about 3 percent of all characters,and Native Americans were invisible.

"Much of the promise ofchange on behalf of the networks has been lip service to appease people," saidDarnell Hunt, the study's author and director of the UCLA Center for AfricanAmerican Studies. "There's been all this anticipation of change and there hasbeen very little. Most of the networks have thrown out a few symbolic gestures andleft most of the programming practices intact."

The research, titled"Prime Time in Black and White: Making Sense of the 2001 Fall Season," wasbased on a content analysis of 224 episodes of 85 fictional series, which airedon ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB in October and November 2001. It is theinaugural report of a five-year study that will track the on-screen presence ofblack Americans in prime-time network television and issues pertaining tobehind-the-scenes control. Hunt was also the author of a Screen Actors Guildstudy in 2000 with similar findings.

Despite the large numberof African Americans on television, they continue to be "ghettoized." They aremore likely than other ethnic groups to appear on situation comedies. Theresearch also found that African Americans were concentrated on UPN and appearlargely on Monday and Saturday nights.

Black characters wereconcentrated on UPN. They represented 28 percent of the characters on UPNcompared to about 12 percent on other networks. Thirty-seven percent of seriesregulars on UPN were African American. Fifty-two percent of allAfrican-American characters who appeared on the screen for more than 10 minutesper hour of programming were on UPN.

"The most prominent blackcharacters were ghettoized on the least-watched network (UPN), in situationcomedies, and on Monday nights," Hunt said. "With a few notable exceptions, theblack characters appearing on other nights, other networks, and in dramas weremuch less prominent."

CBS was the network withthe second-largest percentage of all African-American characters, or 17percent. In the 2000 report, which was based on the 1999 fall televisionseason, African Americans were more concentrated on UPN and the WB.

Monday and Saturday nightswere when more African-American characters appeared on prime-time television.These two nights accounted for nearly 40 percent of all black characters duringthe 2001 fall season. Saturday, the least-watched night on television, featured"Early Edition" and "The District," two CBS dramas with largely black casts. Inthe 2000 report, African Americans were concentrated on Monday and Fridaynights.

African Americans weremore likely than their white, Latino or Asian counterparts to appear insituation comedies during the fall 2001 season. Thirty-nine percent of allblack characters appeared in sitcoms, compared to 31 percent for whites, 23percent for Latinos and 21 percent for Asians. However, about 61 percent ofAfrican-American characters appeared in dramas in 2001, compared with about 50percent in the 2000 report.

The study also examinedwhether African Americans were stereotyped by occupation and the degree towhich black life is integrated into mainstream society.

Black characters were notstereotyped by occupation. Nevertheless, about 30 percent of black charactershad occupations that were not clear from the sampled episodes in the study.With the exception of criminals, who accounted for 3 percent of all blackcharacters, each of the other significant occupations suggested a middle-classto upper middle-class lifestyle. For instance, student portrayals accounted for10.4 percent of the characters, and police officers for almost 8 percent.

Despite theoverrepresentation of blacks in prime-time network television, relatively fewimages were provided of life inside the African-American home. When a blackcharacter first appeared in an episode, she or he was most likely seen at someplace other than home or work.

The study also found thatwhile about 92 percent of all episodes were multiracial, most of these episodesfeatured ethnic characters who were typically included as "props" in thebackground. These characters were not important to the story line.

The overrepresentation ofwhites in positions of power within the television networks continues tohamstring efforts to diversify it, Hunt said. For instance, although whitemales made up only 34 percent of the U.S. population in 2000, they accountedfor 80 percent of all television directors from the 40 top-rated in the 2000–01season, according to a recent Directors Guild of America study.

Anglo Americans similarlycontrol the all-important executive producer ranks. Although official figureswere unavailable, African-American executive producers could only be identifiedfor five of the 85 shows covered in the study. Four of the shows wereblack-oriented sitcoms.

"The underlying fact isthat white control of prime time continues to make it difficult to diversifyit," Hunt said. "Recent gestures toward change have left the underlyingstructures untouched."

Thefinal report will be released this summer.



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