Assaults on TV misdirected

Posted: May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Complaints by special-interest groups ignore the real power of the public - selectively choosing what we watch.

Savvy observers occasionally note television's resemblance to the weather: Everybody loves to complain about it, but nobody can do anything to fix it.

This important insight, however, has done nothing to diminish the ardor of activists who regularly assault the nation's most influential medium of communications for real or imagined crimes. In a single week in April, for instance, representatives of three interest groups complained simultaneously of their under-representation in the TV world.

The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium released results of a study showing that Asian-Americans represented only 2.7% of regular characters on prime time TV, despite comprising nearly 5% of the national population. Karen Narasaki, president of the consortium, also lamented the fact that the networks reinforced stereotypes by showing Asians as smart and successful, while giving insufficient attention to dysfunctional individuals and families.

Meanwhile, a group of black TV professionals gathered at a session at the National Association of Television Program Executives to voice very different complaints. While acknowledging that African-Americans are slightly over-represented on TV screens, the producers worried about the absence of people of color in ?decision-making positions? within the broadcast industry. Karla Winfrey (no relation to Oprah) of Stone Mountain, Ga., said, ?It's difficult when you have people who make decisions who are not able or willing to accept the fact that not everybody is a hip-hopper or an athlete. There are people in our communities who are teachers, doctors, businesspeople, and we have great stories.?

Meanwhile, another significant segment of the population fretted over its shabby treatment by a major network. Conservatives, despite their increasingly powerful presence on cable TV and talk radio, feel excluded and disregarded by the longstanding preponderance of liberal voices on public television. Ken Tomlinson, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is committed to greater balance and diversity on PBS ? efforts that carry special urgency because of taxpayer funding for public television.

Do any ? or all ? of these complaints from Asian-Americans, blacks and conservatives deserve serious consideration?

On the one hand, the importance of televised imagery can't be ignored. The average American invests nearly 30 hours a week watching the tube, so a typical citizen will spend more time with TV fictional characters than with his own neighbors. TV portrayals of minority groups can achieve real world consequences: Most social critics would agree, for example, that the more frequent and sympathetic treatment of gay characters in prime time has encouraged the vastly greater acceptance of homosexuality.

In the case of Asian-Americans, it's hard to imagine how favorable stereotyping or slight under-representation have damaged a segment of the population already enjoying disproportionate educational and economic success. If the networks suddenly provided one-out-of-20 TV characters who were recognizably Asian (instead of today's one out of 37), the programming might provide a marginally more accurate reflection of reality. But who would benefit?

Meanwhile, an increased presence of African-Americans in network executive suites might enhance the power of a tiny handful of black producers. But given the fact that black viewers already watch more TV than any other portion of the public, raising viewership to even higher levels probably would harm, rather than help, the African-American community. Most educational experts agree that excessive engagement with TV leads to an array of negative outcomes, including diminished school performance, lack of exercise, obesity and other problems. For the black community at the moment, the biggest challenge isn't the low quality of TV, but the high quantity that most children watch.

As for complaints from conservatives about PBS, fairness argues against any use of government money to advance a one-sided agenda. Nevertheless, even the most indignant activists can't claim that sparsely viewed liberal shows on struggling public TV stations across the country somehow pose a serious threat to the current Republican hegemony in Washington.

In other words, the complaints by interest groups illustrate the same unfortunate tendency to emphasize supply-side solutions, rather than demand-side solutions, to the problems of TV's impact. We spend too much time fretting over the way the industry produces programming, and too little worrying about the way the public consumes it. Statistical analysis shows that black characters are over-represented on TV, while Asians are under-represented. But that hardly means that the medium is good for blacks and bad for Asians. The influence of broadcast images depends on how selectively consumers choose to watch, not the ethnically based casting decisions executives agree to make.

Ultimately, the only television schedule the public and activists reliably can control is the schedule of what we watch. We might not be able to determine what the industry makes, but we always make the final decision on what we take. In short, complaining about the weather may do nothing to change it, but you always have the option to come in out of the rain.