On the eve of the National Association of Minorities in Communications' annual Vision Awards — honoring cable's best in minority programming — some industry executives are wondering if cable has developed enough quality programming for its increasingly multicultural audience.
Were cable to face the same scrutiny as the broadcast industry for its lack of diverse images, the results would be mixed, industry executives said.
Cable produces far more programming intended for minority audiences than the broadcast networks do. It also features more minority actors in prominent roles.
Given the panoply of cable networks now in operation, the landscape is still fairly limited. Nevertheless, industry executives believe that cable has outperformed broadcast television on the diversity front, although there's still a lot of work to be done.
"There are some people that are doing a whole lot and are doing a very stellar job," said former NAMIC president Joe Lawson. "And there are some people that are not doing anything and are not responsive. You have to take a look at the situation on a network-by- network basis."
Cable has indeed been more willing to produce and distribute programming by and for people of color than broadcast has. NAMIC's April 27 Vision awards will acknowledge the best multicultural cable-produced programming in several categories, after considering hundreds of entries from both basic and pay networks.
"Cable has always been the industry leader in innovative programming," noted National Cable Television Association president Robert Sachs. "[Cable's shows] demonstrate once again the richness of diversity and information that cable brings to television and the American public on issues that matter."
In the early days, cable executives pointed out, one of the platform's major selling points was its ability to target niche audiences that the broadcast networks had left unserved.
From the launch of Black Entertainment Television in the 1980s to the more recent launches of the Black Starz premium service, NUE-TV, MBC Network, and several Spanish-language channels, cable has made a concerted effort to reach out to minority audiences.
Add in mainstream networks' efforts to provide minority-targeted programming, and cable's breadth of multicultural offerings easily eclipses that of the broadcast nets.
"The premise of cable in the mid-1980s was to bring niche programming to viewers that the broadcast networks weren't doing," said Nickelodeon and Nick At Nite executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami.
Nickelodeon's programming has reflected diversity since the 1980s by bucking traditional thinking about what would be attractive to kids and their parents. The network was one of the first to put girls in a lead roles, including The Mysteries of Shellby Woo, featuring a young, Asian-American female mystery solver and Dora The Explorer, an interactive, animated adventure series featuring a Latina girl.
Other shows — such as Keenan & Kel, Little Bill
and the hugely popular Rugrats
have prominently showcased minority characters and their cultures.
"Kids are agents of change, and every year we have to keep up with what they're doing and what they're experiencing," Zarghami said. "Their world is far more culturally rich than anyone's was 10 or 15 years ago, so we have to reflect that richness in our programming."
Home Box Office has also been one of the more aggressive networks in terms of developing minority-themed programming. It recently gave the green light to such original miniseries and movies as the Emmy Award-winning The Corner
and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which appeal to both minority viewers and mainstream audiences.
"We've always looked for stories that other people wouldn't or couldn't tell," HBO Films president Colin Callender said. "There are many, many fascinating stories within the African-American and Latino communities that haven't been told, and we're committed to telling those stories."
Showtime's provocative dramatic series —Resurrection Blvd. and Soul Food
— have helped cable reach Hispanic and African-American audiences looking for alternatives to traditional broadcast programming fare on broadcast, according to network executives. NAMIC this year will recognize the pay network with its prestigious North Star Award.
GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT
Still, some industry observers say cable networks aren't providing enough opportunities to display the cultural richness of U.S. society.
While cable has done a credible job, the total volume of minority-targeted programming is still far too limited, said NAMIC Vision Awards co-creator Kyle Bowser.
Using 2000 Vision Awards submissions to represent most made-for-cable minority programming, Bowser said cable offered about 99 hours of such shows and events. By contrast, the top 21 cable networks offer 183,960 total hours of programming per year.
Thus, minority programming makes up only about half of 1 percent of those networks' schedules.
"While we were very thrilled to have 21 networks participating in the event and 160-something submissions under consideration, the fact that there are over 100 networks currently on cable leaves a lot to be desired," Bowser said. "If you take the total African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic-American populations and added [them] up, I think we're worthy of more programming representation in the cable industry."
BET executive vice president of affiliate relations Curtis Symonds also said the industry needs to step up its efforts to deliver quality multicultural programming.
"I still believe the cable industry can do more to create programming targeted to the multicultural audience," Symonds said. "The pay companies, in particular, have stretched out in their efforts, but I still think there's a lot of room for improvement."
Said HBO's Callender, "The real goal is developing a consistent body of work so that no singular product has to carry the burden for the industry."
As the number of alternative content-delivery technologies rises, executives warned that cable could face the prospect of losing minority viewers who move to direct-broadcast satellite — or opt to drop pay TV altogether — if they're not satisfied with what they see.
EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network, in particular, has been very aggressive in targeting the Hispanic audience. It has created a 23-channel, Spanish-language network tier.
"With so many choices, the minority consumer will determine whether they're getting more value from DBS or from free, over-the-air TV than cable and act accordingly," said MBC senior managing partner Alvin James. "If they're getting more ethnic programming on DBS or broadcast television than on cable, they're going to question whether they should pay their cable operator $60 or $70 a month, when the value isn't there for them."
Civil-rights organizations are certain to take a look at cable's on-screen performance to determine if the industry is doing an adequate job in dealing with diversity issues.
A spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said that organization — which in 1999 released a critical report on cable's minority hiring practices — isn't planning a similar report on programming in the near future.
But the spokesman did say that programming diversity is an "ongoing concern" that the organization will monitor.
Last November, the NAACP and a coalition of civil-rights groups chided the broadcast networks for not offering more minority images in network series and specials — particularly for Asian-Americans and Latinos.
The announcement came 16 months after a scathing NAACP report that criticized the networks for not providing more on-screen and executive opportunities for African-Americans.
The report prompted the four major networks to reach agreements with the NAACP to increase diversity within their companies both on and off-screen.
Yet at least one civil-rights organization — the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition — praises cable for its diversity programming efforts, while leaving room for some industry improvement.
"The industry is doing a very good job at allowing young and bright artists and producers to succeed in delivering programming that gives viewers a greater understanding of the cultural makeup of society," Rainbow Coalition director of media and telecom projects Dahlia Hayles said. "Cable is being very creative and enlightened, but we want the industry in general to take even greater steps toward ensuring that the images depicted are of a positive, diverse culture."