Editorial by John Ziegler

NAACP's Misplaced Priorities


If We Could Just Find A Job For Urkel…

A year and a half ago the NACCP examined the landscape of American society and determined that of all the many problems still facing people of color as we headed into a new millennium, that there was one that so clearly stood out above all the others that it deserved to be its highest public priority. Was it the modernizing of inner city schools? Dealing with the changing nature of welfare, affirmative action and healthcare? Addressing the high crime rate among black males? Educating young people about the horrors of drugs? Certainly any one of those causes would have provided a worthy target for the NACCP to focus its considerable media clout. However, instead the nation's most well known civil rights group chose a completely different topic on which to stage its most publicized cry for justice: the lack of black actors on primetime major network television shows.

Now, eighteen months after reaching agreements with the major networks that were partially prompted (blackmailed?) by the threat of a boycott, the NAACP has released a report claiming that it is not satisfied with the progress that has been achieved in rectifying what they apparently believe is the most important cultural ill facing African Americans today. The group is now renewing warnings that, if it isn't appeased quickly, it may be forced to call for it members to stop watching the ABC, NBC, CBS, NBC, and Fox television networks.

This latest gambit for power and notoriety by the NAACP is an absurdity, based on irrationality, wrapped in silliness. The ultimate irony of this threatened boycott is that, by and large, blacks are ALREADY "boycotting" the "major" television networks, and have been for quite some time. The dirty little secret of television in the cable age of "fragmented" media is that blacks and whites do not watch the same shows, and that blacks do not watch the "major" over the air networks in large enough numbers to justify those networks going out of their way to appeal to their particular demographic. While it is an unfortunate reality that blacks still seem to prefer watching blacks (to get in touch with their culture/heritage?) and whites prefer to watch whites (because they are racists?), television networks are businesses that must live in the real world and not in some sort of utopian fantasyland.

In fact, over the last decade, only one television show has traditionally been on the list of the top ten most watched programs among BOTH blacks and whites; Monday Night Football. In the1999-2000 season, none of the other nine most popular shows among whites came close to making the list among blacks (Friends, for instance, fifth among whites, finished 65th among blacks). Similarly, none of the other nine most watched programs among blacks came close to breaking the top ten in white viewership, and only one other offering on that list even came from one of the other "big four" networks (the other eight shows were all on either UPN or the WB).

While it is suspect at best that the NAACP would choose to tackle such a seemingly trivial matter in such a dramatic fashion, since the networks do use airwaves that are owned by the people and regulated by the government, one could make a rather strong argument that there is a legitimate public interest in there being cultural diversity on those airwaves. However, this entire contention of the NAACP seems to completely ignore the existence of the two other over the air television networks (UPN and the WB) that have, following market forces, chosen to cater more heavily to African Americans. When one or two of the networks are looked at in a vacuum there may appear to be a slight under representation of a demographic which accounts for about 12 percent of the population, but when all six networks are examined as a complete entity there are actually far MORE black faces on television than one would expect from such a relatively small sliver of the viewing audience.

The really strange part of the NAACP's latest action is that in the last couple of years it seems as if there have actually been some significant improvements in both the racial diversity of those employed by the networks, and in the segregated viewing habits of those who watch. ABC, which was harshly criticized in the report, says that 33.6 percent of new hires last year were minorities, while Fox now claims that 41 percent of its prime time actors are minorities. Meanwhile, NBC admitted an 11 percent drop in the number of black actors in its prime time series, but did not receive scathing criticism (perhaps because NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, it turns out, is in negotiations with a division of the Peacock network to host his own talk show).

But far more important than making sure that minority actors get there fair share of work (how can we sleep at night knowing that Gary Coleman doesn't have a show?), is the trickle of a trend that blacks and whites are actually capable of watching some of the same shows. According to one study (by TN Media), there were just 13 "multi-ethnic ensemble shows" in 1995, but there were 27 in 1999 and 31 in 2000. The same study indicates that more programs than ever (partially with the help of the rise of "reality TV") are now listed informally by both blacks and whites as their favorite shows.

So just as this massive entertainment gap seems to be showing signs of starting to close, the NAACP has now seemingly set us all several more steps backwards. What are the networks supposed to do now? If they cave in even further to these unwarranted demands they will further harm their already suspect programming while subjecting every black actor to the automatic assumption that he or she was hired simply to placate the NAACP. If they don't allow the NAACP to dictate whom they are allowed to use in their simple attempt to sell as much "soap” to as many "soap buyers" as a possible, they risk the wrath of a significant portion of the population and the news media (which by the way, goes out of its way to employ as many reporters of color as possible).

This is a classic no win situation and certainly not one that should have been set up (twice now!) by an organization that claims to be fighting in the name of racial equality. It is bad enough that TV actors are already hired mostly for their looks, do they now also have to be hired for their color as well? Don't we have far more important racial problems to worry about? The guy who played Urkel might not think so, but I believe most of us, black and white, realize that we most certainly do.

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