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Research Exposes Inequities in TV’s Hiring of African-American Actors

African-American actors tend to get segregated on television, with the majority relegated to sitcoms and upstart networks, a USC media researcher has found.

“The good news for African-Americans is these actors are represented on average in greater proportion than in the general public,” said Darnell Hunt, lead author of “The African-American Television Report.”

“But when you start breaking that down and look at the networks, time slots and type of programs where these characters end up, you see a lot of ghettoization, which is a problem,” said Hunt, a director of African-American Studies at USC.

Sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund, Hunt’s work is being billed as the most comprehensive study ever of African-Americans portrayals and casting in prime time.

Between Oct. 17 and Dec. 4, 1999, the associate professor in sociology examined 384 episodes of 87 prime-time series on six key networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB.

Surprisingly, he found that African-Americans, who constitute 12.2 percent of the U.S. population, actually were overrepresented on television, accounting for 16 percent of all characters seen on networks during prime time. But the way those characters were distributed across genres, networks and days of the week raised “unresolved questions about power imbalances in our society,” Hunt said.

“If race didn’t matter, you’d expect to see an equal distribution of people across the week, program types and the dial,” he said. “Clearly, race matters.”

Other findings included:

• More than half of all African-American characters appeared in situation comedies, compared to less than a third of white characters, less than a quarter of all Latino characters and about one-sixth of Asian characters. In contrast, only about 49 percent of African-American characters were seen in television dramas, compared to 70 percent of white characters, 83 percent of Asian characters and 79 percent of Latino characters.

• African-American characters tended to be concentrated in two fledgling networks. Although UPN and WB produced less than one-third of all episodes airing over the period in question, they accounted for more than 44 percent of all African-American characters seen in primetime.

In contrast, African-Americans were underrepresented on two major networks. Fewer than 10 percent of the characters appearing on Fox and about 11 percent of those on NBC were African -American. Of those characters, more than half were on the screen for less than one minute, indicating that they tended to be tangential to the plot as opposed to central figures.

• African-American sitcoms tended to be concentrated in two nights. On Monday and Friday evenings, seven prominent African-American sitcoms air, accounting for more than half of all African-American characters in prime time.

“If these two nights were eliminated from the prime time lineup, nearly two-thirds of all African American characters who appear on the screen for more than 10 minutes would disappear,” Hunt said. “That’s a pretty frail presence.”

Hunt’s efforts have been re ported in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. They stand at the center of a push by the actors guild to increase employment opportunities for minority actors and for more representational portrayals for African-American characters.

“We’re going to be meeting with producers at various production companies and networks to look at the basic findings and to talk about improving the situation,” Hunt said. “It’s not very often that you get an opportunity to translate the type of research I do into policy programs, so in that sense it’s gratifying.”

Research Exposes Inequities in TV’s Hiring of African-American Actors

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