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Culture Clash of Entertainment

January 20, 2012

Editors note: For the purpose of this entry, reality based shows were not included in the mix since stupidity and misery of others cross every social divide and have always been and will always be of universal appeal. 

There are hundreds of television shows on every single day.  In fact, it would be quite cliché to say there is something for everyone on the dial.  There are widely popular shows, and there are minutely niche shows, and they are all on TV because it was predetermined that there was an audience for each one.  Story lines and settings vary widely, from crime scene investigations to uncharted islands, but in the end they draw their audiences, not through identifying with the story or the setting, but from identifying with the characters’ behaviors and interactions in response to the parameters set by the story and setting.

We know from decades of entertainment, that women (as a majority) will be drawn to romantically inclined characters, and men (as a majority) will be drawn to characters who are thrust into heroics.  We know that audiences respond better if they are drawn to these characters physically.  These are just simple socio-scientific congruences.  Today is a socially enlightened time, however.  We have created socially racial equality, social sexual equality, and we are now breaching social sexuality equality.  We have ostracized most of our disparaging terms and clichés from our language. Our American culture has made such strides in reversing our human errors of the past that the pool of corrective potential has actually begun to wade a bit shallow.  We’re running out of things to correct.

Sifted from this pool, each year, come several studies reporting the lack of non-white characters in “mainstream” television.  The GLAAD organization releases their “Where We Are On TV” study that criticizes television for not having enough gay characters.   In response to this consumer dissatisfaction, new TV networks have been launched that reverse discriminate for the benefit of those discriminated against.  The results of these station equate to dollars.  Now, Telemundo and Univision are the two highest viewed cable networks on television.  BET television followed MTV’s video format quickly, but now its success has parented its own original programming.  Martin Luther King III launched BOUNCE television just last year, also exclusively for black audiences, and has already brought in ratings that match HLN, BBC and Comedy Central.

It seems the argument is smacking network TV right in the face that diversity equals dollars; that people want it and will watch it in droves.  Surely, if these  minority exclusive cable stations can launch and retain such high viewership, then why should network television not also embrace the “now?”

This is why.  Good intentions are wonderful, and are responsible for millions of dollars of donations, but they’ve never been real great at creating and running a company.  Guess what?  Network television stations are companies.  They are big companies.  Big companies have big success.  When that happens, little companies always come in to steal away little pieces of the big player’s business by specializing.  Try to count how many theme parks sit within a 45-mile radius of Disney World in Orlando.  The success of Gatorland, however, should not say to Disney World, “We need more alligators.”  Additionally, when a business sells a product, and chooses to mass market its message, would it be more profitable to target the advertising budget towards 74% of the customer potential, or 16%?   Do you know what one of the most widely unreported census statistic today is?  It’s that 76% of the U.S. is white/caucasian.

Network television stations, for as much as you hear are losing audience, still have the lion’s share of the business, and it’s because they know who the majority of their customer potential can come that they know how to position their product to go and get it.  It might be deduced from this that the whole network TV business model is flawed by racism, and to that I might have to agree, but only because the entire entertainment industry is completely lead and conducted by sexism, racism and plain bias.  After all, the launch of Spanish and African American television stations proves that to be correct.  The very nature of the argument for more diversity on TV states that people want to watch characters that look like themselves, that Black people don’t identify with White people and gay folk don’t identify with straight folk.  BET stands for Black Entertainment Television.  BOUNCE TV’s slogan is actually “TV Our Way” 

There can, of course, be no argument that networks have made incredible progress in adding representatives from the various mixes of America.  And although  the Screen Actors Guild reported that in 2011 only 13% of characters on TV and film were black, one TV critic wrote of today’s TV characters, “there’s so many BBF’s (black best friends) around, you can divide them by types.”  And although GLAAD reported that in 2011, only 4% of characters on network TV are portrayed as gay, they also reported that ABC Family (cable) dedicated 55% of their broadcast hours to homosexual characters or positive references to the sexuality.

These criticisms continue to remain unfulfilled because of one simple reality, that no program or network will ever accurately represent you or your personal surroundings.  If you live in Los Angeles or New York (both headquarters of GLAAD), your gay lifestyle perspective will be overindexed.  If you live in Atlanta or Chicago, your African American perspective will be over indexed.  And if you own a news organization, and need to report on stories like these, you will likely be headquartered in New York, LA, Chicago, or Atlanta.

The real irony is that since TV is watched by the entire country, the hard line best case scenario should be real representation from all of the U.S., and as a country these are real the numbers: 13% of the American population is black; 75-80% is white; and compensating for honesty as well as a lack of an accepted universal definition, most studies put the homosexual population of the U.S. at 3-8%.  If you check those numbers against the above television studies numbers, this really shouldn’t even be a conversation.

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