Prime Time Television's Black and White World
Study Says Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans Are Underrepresented
This report is the latest installment in an annual examination of minority representation in network television entertainment programming. The research was based on a content analysis of 234 episodes of 85 situation comedies and dramas airing on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB during three weeks in October and November 2002.
The study was authored by Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was released June 24, 2003.
"Prime Time in Black and White," a five-year, longitudinal study of diversity on prime time network television, aims to explore the relationships between television entertainment and today's American racial order. The recently released study of the 2002 season examined the on-screen portrayal of African Americans and other minorities, as well as related issues about behind-the-scenes industry control.
Now in its second year, "Prime Time in Black and White" is conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. The Center for African American Studies was established at UCLA in 1969 and is today one of the oldest research units in the nation focusing on history, culture, and experiences of African Americans. The Center was renamed after UCLA alumnus, Nobel Prize winner, and race scholar Ralph J. Bunche in 2003.
Researchers on this year's study examined 234 episodes of 85 sitcoms and dramas airing on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and WB during three weeks between October 13 and November 16, 2002. The resulting sample consisted of 189.5 hours of programming and included coding for 3656 characters.
Prime time television continues to present a largely black and white world
Despite the ever-increasing diversity of American society, prime time continues to depict a largely black and white world. Findings from the second year of the study revealed that both black and white Americans are over-represented in prime time, with whites accounting for about 74 percent of all characters, compared to only about 69 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks accounted for about 16 percent of all characters compared to about 12 percent of the population.
The television figures for blacks have held steady since at least 1999 (when the Screen Actors Guild released a study on race in prime time), while those for whites have decreased slightly from a high of about 78 percent in 1999. Combined, whites and blacks constituted 90 percent of all prime-time characters in 2002, a figure not significantly different from that observed in the first year of the study (92 percent).
Latinos are the most underrepresented group in prime time
Latinos accounted for only about 3 percent of all characters in prime time, compared to about 13 percent of the U.S. population. This more than four-to-one representation gap seems particularly anomalous given recent public discussions about the emergence of Latinos as the nation's largest minority group.
Meanwhile, some observers have accounted for the gap by pointing to the presence of Spanish-language media in the U.S., which they argue may better serve the needs of Latino audience members and the advertisers who are attempting to reach them. In other words, some argue that prime-time network television under-represents Latinos because it is less profitable to target them as viewers than it is to target whites or blacks. While this logic is rooted in findings suggesting that viewers tend to prefer programs populated with characters resembling them, it is silent on the possible social and political implications of Latino under-representation in prime time.
Asian Americans may be approaching proportionate representation in prime time
Asian Americans accounted for about 3 percent of all characters in prime time, compared to nearly 4 percent of the U.S. population. In this sense, Asian Americans, unlike Latinos, appear to be closing the gap between their on-screen presence and their actual presence in the nation's population.
On the other hand, relatively few of these Asian American characters are "series regulars," the central characters around whom a prime-time program revolves and with whom audience members identify. Indeed, not a single prime-time, network series in 2002 featured an Asian American as the central character. The other groups (with the exception of Native Americans) had at least one series in which a member of the group was featured as the primary character.
Native Americans are completely invisible in prime time
No Native American character could be identified out of the 3656 characters coded in the 2002 study. This finding was consistent with findings from year one of the study and a 1999 study of minority representation in prime time.
Prime time continues to present a male-dominated world
For both whites and blacks, nearly 63 percent of all characters are male. For Latinos, the figure is 56 percent, while females outnumber males only among Asians (about 53 percent to 47 percent).
White characters dominate "screen time"
For the first time, the study of the 2002 season examined the total amount of time white, black, Latino and Asian American characters appear on the screen in their respective shows. The data revealed that white characters continue to dominate prime time not only in terms of the number of characters, but also in terms of the prominence of the characters in their respective shows' narratives. That is, white characters accounted for 224.4 hours of screen time -- about 81 percent of the total screen time of 275.8 hours for characters of all races. Black characters accounted for 40.5 hours of screen time, or about 15 percent of the total. Meanwhile, Latino and Asian American characters accounted only for 7.4 hours and 3.6 hours of screen time, respectively. In other words, both Latino and Asian Americans are significantly underrepresented in terms of screen time, accounting for only about 3 percent and 1 percent of total screen time, respectively. Mean character screen times by race are as follows: white characters, 6.9 minutes; black characters, 5.8 minutes; Latino characters, 5.6 minutes; and Asian American characters, 3.6 minutes.
Racial representation continues to vary by network
Previous studies of race in prime time suggest that black and white characters have been largely segregated by network and night of the week. Findings from the 2002 season reveal that white Americans are most over-represented on the WB and NBC, where they account for about 83 percent and 81 percent of all characters, respectively (compared to only about 69 percent of the U.S. population). Blacks, in contrast, continue to be most over-represented on UPN, where they account for 31 percent of all characters, despite making up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population.
Other minority characters appear so infrequently in prime time that the patterns were not as pronounced as the ones for blacks and whites.
UPN's Monday line-up still constitutes "black night" in prime time
While not as pronounced as in previous years, UPN's Monday night situation comedies continue to account for a disproportionate share of prominent black characters. That is, 112 of the 125 black characters appearing on Monday night did so on UPN (90 percent).
Although these 112 characters represent only about 19 percent of all black characters in prime time (n=580), they accounted for nearly 30 percent of total black screen time (about 12.2 hours out of a total of 40.5 hours). Moreover, four of the five shows with the highest percentage of characters who are black - The Parkers (76.7 percent), Half and Half (76.0 percent), Girlfriends (70.4 percent), and One on One (65.6 percent) - constitute the network's Monday night line-up. The fifth show, My Wife and Kids (72.4 percent) is a black-oriented sitcom that appears on ABC.
Findings from the 2002 season suggest that the television industry continues to be driven by business logics that divide the nation into market segments based on race, where the large but declining white segment reigns supreme. Programs designed to reach the other, smaller racial niches are relegated to a night or two, and often concentrated on the smaller networks, if at all. Integrated programming that features characters of different races that interact with one another -- and that share equitable degrees of prominence -- is the exception rather than the rule.
While the picture painted in prime time arguably reflects the current reality of American race relations with startling clarity, it also works to reinforce that reality by splintering the diverse cultural forum that might otherwise re-imagine it.