Oakland, Ca. A new study on the current television season finds that the 8 to 9 o'clock "family hours," when children are most likely to be watching contains the least racially diverse programming in all of prime time.
"Fall Colors 2000-01," released by Children Now, a child policy and advocacy organization, found that despite television networks' stated commitments to greater on-screen diversity, only small improvements were made over the previous seasonand the representation of Latinos and other groups actually decreased. Overall, the study found that prime time is dominated by white, male characters, which sends skewed messages to children about the status and value of women and minorities.
The second annual study examined the race, gender, class, sexual identity, disability and occupation of all characters in prime time situation comedies and dramas on the six broadcast networks for the current television season. Among the findings:
The 8 o'clock "family hour" is the least racially diverse hour on television. Only one in eight (13%) of the programs broadcast during this hour have mixed opening credits casts. By contrast, two thirds (67%) of programs during the ten o'clock hour, when the least children are watching, have mixed opening credits cast.
African Americans account for the majority of non-white prime time characters, comprising 17%, followed by Asian Pacific Americans (3%), Latinos (2%) and Native Americans (0.2%). In addition, the study found that most on-screen racial diversity comes from the inclusion of non-recurring characters and that the number of diverse programs decreases significantly when focusing on a show's main characters only.
Latino representation on prime time decreased from 3% of total characters last year to 2% this year. By contrast, Latinos make up over 12% of the national population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
The research showed that no one network performed significantly better or worse than any other.
"As America's primary cultural storyteller, television creates a common picture of who's important and who's not," said Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now. "Prime time programmer appear to have forgotten that America's children in all of their diversity are a big part of the evening viewing audience," she said.
The study also found that situation comedies, the most popular genre among children, are the least diverse of all prime time genres. Only 14% of sitcoms have racially mixed casts. Dramas, however, are three times more likely to have multiracial casts than comedies.
Further results showed that:
Men continue to dominate television, comprising 65% of the prime time population. In addition, parental and marital status of female characters were twice as likely to be made known than for male characters.
Just over 1% of characters were identified as being openly gay or lesbian, a slight increase from last year. Of those, two thirds were white and three quarters were male.
One percent of characters displayed some type of disability; more than half of these characters were white and three quarters were male. Characters with disabilities appeared about half as often as last season.
Portrayals of youth mirror the racial and gender under-representation of adult characters. Youth characters are 60% male and 78% white, despite demographic data showing that the youth population is actually more diverse than the adult population.
When looking at the occupations of characters, the study finds that white characters are more likely than African American characters to be shown in professional business jobs, whereas African Americans are more likely to be shown in law enforcement-related positions. Both whites and African Americans appear with about equal frequency as physicians, attorneys and in service, retail and restaurant jobs. Of the top five occupations that exist for various racial groups, only people of color played domestic workers, homemakers, nurse/physicians' assistants and unskilled laborers. The study also found that the portrayals of these lower status/income positions are concentrated within the Latino prime time population.
Television programming is not accurately depicting the benefits that diversity brings to our culture and society," said Patti Miller, director of Children Now's Children & The Media program. "In particular, by both the type and frequency of minority portrayals, prime time television is unwittingly devaluing the contribution that people of color make to our social, economic and political life," she said.
Overall, the 2000-01 season is slightly more diverse than the previous year. In the 1999-2000 season whites made up 80% of the prime time population; this year that dropped to 75%. But consistent with last year, diversity decreased when focusing on shows' main characters.
The study also offered recommendations to writers, producers and executives on ways to improve the picture when developing prime time programming, including suggestions to improve the portrayal of characters of color, improve diversity on programs that air when children are more likely to be watching and increase diversity in hiring practices behind the camera.
The study noted that children's programming offers a greater range of racially diverse characters for young viewers, providing opportunity for lessons about inclusivity, tolerance and cross-cultural learning. But many of these messages disappear when children watch prime time shows, which don't have the rich diversity and range of role models found in children's shows.