Who's Really Being Cheated in Prime Time?

Kweisi Mfume and the NAACP are mad as hell, and say they're not going to take it anymore. On July 12, Mfume, the NAACP's president, announced that his organization plans to turn up the heat on the major television networks and their advertisers in an effort to reverse the shrinking percentage of black characters in prime time.

Although Mfume wants to meet with network executives to gauge their receptivity to his complaints, he predicts that ultimately, boycotts of both shows and sponsors will be necessary. Moreover, he says that the NAACP is "actively exploring taking legal action against the networks and their affiliates based on the premise that ... the airwaves belong to the public."

The truth is that the small-screen picture for blacks isn't as bleak as Mfume paints it. Last season, reports Robert Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs, ten percent of prime time characters were black - not a terribly serious underrepresentation inasmuch as blacks make up just under twelve percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics could feel far more slighted: they're eleven percent of the population but less than four percent of prime time characters.

Still, the NAACP's fledgling campaign has been widely reported by a mainstream media conditioned to give uncritical coverage to the NAACP regardless of the merits. Meanwhile, much less attention has been paid to a group that claims - with evidence - to be badly underrepresented, and misrepresented, on prime time. They're not a racial or ethnic minority. They're not even a minority. They are the religious, tens of millions strong, white, black, brown, and yellow.

For five years, 1993 through '97, the Media Research Center, which I head, examined prime time's treatment of faith and believers and issued studies detailing and quantifying its findings. The good news was that at the end of that period, references to religion had increased, thanks, in large part, to the CBS hit "Touched By an Angel."

The bad news was pretty much everything else, which pretty much stayed the same.

A consistent finding in the MRC studies was that the more religion matters to a TV character, the likelier it will be a negative influence on him, or that he will be a negative figure. Depictions of devout lay people were overwhelmingly unfavorable - twice by a 4-to-1 ratio, once by 6-to-1, and in '97 an astronomic 10-to-1. Typical of that year, an investigator on NBC's "Profiler" speculated that a murder suspect originally went bad because he was "abused by very traditional religious parents." A character in the CBS miniseries "True Women" commented, "I read Frederick Douglass' book ... I was shocked to hear that religious slaveholders were the cruelest." And so on.

If actual believers were as depraved as these fictional ones, the world would be a dreadful, dreadful place, wouldn't it? It just demonstrates how little prime time corresponds to reality.

Things were a bit brighter, but not bright enough, where portrayals of the clergy were concerned. After receiving more negative than positive treatment each year from '93 through '95, priests, nuns, ministers, and rabbis were dealt with positively more often than negatively in the following two years.

But think about this for a moment and ponder the percentages from '97, for example: 31.6 percent of clerical portrayals were favorable; 27.6 percent were unfavorable; 40.8 percent were mixed or neutral. It means, amazingly, that not even one in three prime time clergymen was preserved as a positive character. Given the sterling ethics and morality of almost all men and women of the cloth, and the justifiably high esteem in which the public holds them, those numbers are badly out of whack.

And one more statistic: From 1993 to 1997, on average on prime time television religion was mentioned only once every 3.3 hours.

The situation probably will worsen before it improves. Religion-friendly shows, unlike smutty sitcoms, aren't a thriving genre, where you can count on a new crop every year. Furthermore, one pro-faith standby, "Promised Land," has been canceled, and while "Touched By an Angel" remains a hit, it's heading into its sixth season and, as they say, isn't getting any younger. "7th Heaven" is wholesome enough; nonetheless, it's a family drama first and a religious drama second.

If a traditional-values organization were to announce it was mounting a boycott against the anti-religious bigotry of the television networks, it wouldn't be covered as extensively or as respectfully as the NAACP's campaign has been. Indeed, you can bet these religious "extremists" would be accused of censorship - of which the left, of course, is never, ever guilty.