NAACP 'Minority Report' On TV Misses Key Point

A new NAACP report cites the under-representation of minorities on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. But a critic says the report doesn't reflect the quality of black roles across the TV spectrum.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From NPR News, it's Day to Day. Hollywood has been buzzing with talk about the possibility of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild, but there is another group that's been talking about a potential boycott: the NAACP. The group is condemning the underrepresentation of minorities on broadcast television. Here with his take on the subject is TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: When you examine the statistics, it doesn't look good. The number of minority actors in primetime series has decreased slightly from the last time the NAACP took a measurement in 2003. Only ABC is on the increase. No wonder the organization's president is threatening to take action unless more people of color are working on both sides of the camera. The prospect of a boycott hasn't been raised since 1999, when not a single broadcast show had a lead minority actor. The world has changed a lot since then, but has the NAACP?

You see, I understand their argument that primetime is not consistent with the racial composition of America. But the problem with the NAACP's report is it's not consistent with the reality of the television landscape. To reduce the argument to one word: cable. It makes absolutely no sense in this day and age to report on TV to focus on broadcast alone when there are dozens of cable channels with comparable audiences, and there plenty of examples of programs featuring black leads. They get broadcast-sized ratings. Just take the oldest cable network in America, TBS, which features the all-black sitcom, "House of Payne." Its producer is Tyler Perry, who really changed Hollywood's racial makeup this year by starting his own studio in Atlanta. Here he is in a TBS clip discussing "House of Payne."

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Mr. TYLER PERRY (Producer of "House of Payne"): The rules that have been setup for years and years and years in Hollywood are changing. Those rules that were working years ago are not working as well anymore, because there's so many other choices; there's so many other channels; there's so much - so many things you can tune to or tune out.

WALLENSTEIN: The NAACP report bemoaned the fact that when the WB and UPN were merged a few years ago, many black sitcoms were canceled. But not only is Tyler Perry continued to run with that torch; the study has completely omitted myNetworkTV, a nationwide channel that is technically a broadcaster and has shows hosted by black comedians like Arsenio Hall and Tony Rock. The timing of the study also couldn't worse, because while it strangely doesn't take into account the current and previous TV seasons, it comes on the heels of perhaps the most prominent black casting in TV history. Laurence Fishburne just replaced William Petersen atop TV's most watched show, the forensics drama "CSI."

(Soundbite of TV show "CSI")

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Dr. Raymond Langston) Hello. I'm Dr. Raymond Langston. I'd like to welcome all those faculty members who have bravely come out of the closet and revealed themselves to be murder freaks.

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WALLENSTEIN: And let's not forget D. L. Hughley, who became the first comedian to get his own show on CNN. And there's even more great programming on cable with minorities, but that almost feels really like a secondary point. The NAACP is so focused on quantity that an appreciation of quality seems to have been lost. Even if there are fewer black faces on TV, are all roles created equal? Would the organization trade 10 UPN sitcoms for one "Cosby Show"? Surely the NAACP has better things to do than make these head counts. Maybe have a little faith in the free market, which dictates networks are going to cater to their diverse audiences for no other reason than it's just good business.

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COHEN: Andrew Wallenstein is deputy editor of the Hollywood Reporter.

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COHEN: Day to Day returns in a moment.

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