The Greater Reality of Minorities on TV

Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2009

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Despite decades of public pressure on the major networks to diversify, the lead characters in all but a few of prime-time scripted shows this season are still white–and usually young and affluent. In contrast, reality programs consistently feature a much broader range of people when it comes to race, age, class and sexual orientation.

For example, CBS’ “The Amazing Race” includes an Asian American brother-and-sister team and two African American sisters in its 14th season, which premiered Sunday. Three African Americans are in the current cast of CBS’ “Survivor.” Four African Americans and two Tongan Americans have been featured on the current season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

By contrast, a report released last year by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, titled “Out of Focus–Out of Sync,” accused the networks of perpetuating a view of the nation that recalls “America’s segregated past.” The 40-page report charged that non-whites are underrepresented in almost every aspect of the television industry–except for reality programming.

That’s no accident, according to reality TV producers and creators.

“We’re looking to create shows that everyday people can relate to, and for that you really need a true representation of the population,” said Dave Broome, executive producer of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

“A couple of seasons ago, there was an over-the-top character who was white that we could have cast, but we sacrificed that for a Latino. That’s how important that is.”

The culture mix is driven by more than just political correctness. Although reality shows aren’t directly in the business of bringing racial and ethnic enlightenment to America, they are in business. For shows that thrive on conflict and drama, a collection of cast members from varied backgrounds often serves that goal. Unresolved issues surrounding race, class and sexual orientation can either quietly fuel tension on programs or generate outright emotional explosions.

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Though the issue of race is often secondary to unscripted series’ story lines, it does at times directly fuel the drama. William “Mega” Collins, an outspoken African American houseguest on the first edition of CBS’ “Big Brother,” was the first evicted from the show after he angrily confronted his predominantly white fellow participants about race. CBS’ “Survivor” in 2006 sparked a furor when the series initially divided tribes along racial and ethnic lines.

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Minority contestants have often done well in competition shows, such as ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” By winning week after week, these contestants in effect become some of the programs’ leading characters.

(Two notable exceptions in which a reality program has yet to spotlight a person of color are ABC’s dating franchise shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” In 17 total seasons, neither show’s main role has ever been filled with a person of color. ABC representatives say they are “exploring” the issue for upcoming seasons.)

That’s seldom the case with scripted comedies and dramas. Though the major networks–ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC–have in recent years made noticeable strides in assembling multicultural casts in ensemble shows such as “Heroes,” “ER,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” there are still only five network shows with a minority actor playing a clear central character: {snip}

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“When you’re casting for an unscripted show, it’s a much bigger universe and a whole different talent base,” said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. “It’s real people versus actors.

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[Editor’s Note: The NAACP report “Out of Focus-Out of Sync Take 4” can be downloaded as a PDF file here.]


Orange County residents on both sides of the illegal immigration debate will square off in front of ABC Disney studios in Burbank on Sunday, one group in protest and another in support of the network’s television program “Homeland Security USA.”

The reality TV show has sparked a torrent of both disdain and cheers in immigration Web chat rooms and the blogosphere, setting off petitions and e-mails in protest and support for the show, which first aired in January

A few hundred people are expected to show up at Sunday’s rallies. The Southern California Immigration Coalition, an immigrant-rights group, is scheduled to protest across from counterprotesters organized by Save Our State, an anti-illegal immigration organization.

The show gives a glimpse at the daily work life of federal workers, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who are responsible for protecting the nation’s ports. They are portrayed as heroes who encounter and turn away or apprehend a variety of suspected culprits–from a Swiss woman looking to belly dance in the U.S. to suspected drug smugglers.

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Critics of the show, however, have called the series government propaganda, saying that it only portrays one side of a complex and controversial issue, especially regarding illegal immigration.

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Series executive producer Arnold Shapiro has said that the show does not have a political point of view, according to an Associated Press story in December.

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