The numbers game

by Chon A. Noriega

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

From June 15 to 17, 1993, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held meetings in Los Angeles as part of a three to five year study on the rise in ethnic and racial tension in the United States. The Commission had already held hearings in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, with projected sites in New York City and Miami. It planned to include additional research and reports from the commission's fifty-one state advisory committees. On the surface, these meetings responded to the resurgence of ethnic and racial violence in major urban centers, addressing police-community relations, equal employment opportunity, economic development, and access to social services. But, upon closer examination, the investigation reveals a significant, though uncertain reorientation of the racial paradigm, insofar as the hearings followed upon "riots" or "civil disturbances" in predominantly Latino-ppopulated communities, from Mount Pleasant to South Central. This is something the commission's first report — on the civil rights concerns of Latinos in the District of Columbia — made explicit as it drew parallels with the national Latino population, which increased 53% during the 1980s, and now accounted for large portions of the cities under investigation: from 12% in Washington, D.C., to 40% in Los Angeles, to 62% in Miami.[1] [open notes in new window]

The hearings in Los Angeles had been planned before the riots. In fact, Chairperson Arthur Fletcher acknowledged that separate hearings were to have been held on Latinos in the media, since Latinos are much more underrepresented than other minority groups relative to their population. But, as Fletcher further acknowledged, the media hearings had been stopped on account of "powerful people on both sides of the aisle in Congress" who represented the interests of the news media and entertainment industry.[2] As a consequence, a daylong series of panels on the news media and entertainment television were incorporated into the ongoing investigation on racial and ethnic tensions when the commission met in Los Angeles. Below is an account (part summary, part hindsight) of my own testimony before the commission. More than anything else, it highlights the "numbers game" that is assumed to be the prerequisite for social change in a democratic, free market society.


Since the commission's last report on minorities in television, Window Dressing on the Set: An Update, released in January 1979, there have been three significant developments that need to be considered for their impact upon minorites:

1. Since the report, networks have had to compete with cable systems, pay TV and home video — within a shrinking national economy. Conventional wisdom within the industry holds that these economic factors are responsible for the subsequent failure to diversify primetime content and formats. I will show that this is a misleading rationale.

2. Since the report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has supported deregulation of the television industry, with the result that seldom, if ever has a station lost its license on the basis of equal employment opportunity violations. Given these two factors, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights findings and recommendations for 1979 still apply today. Three conclusions from that report bear reprinting here:

• "The FCC should conduct an inquiry and proposed rulemaking in which it would investigate the relationship between the network programming decision-making process, the resulting portrayal of minorities and women, and the impact of these portrayals on viewers."

The commission argued that such a step on the part of the FCC would not violate the First Amendment, whereas the courts had found that earlier efforts had done so (for example, the creation of family viewing hour) or, conversely, had violated the Administrative Procedures Act in an attempt not to infringe on the First Amendment.

• "The FCC should seek authorization from Congress to regulate equal employment opportunity at the networks and among all owners of more than one broadcast facility." The FCC regulates equal employment opportunity at broadcast stations, but is not empowered to regulate the networks and broadcast group owners."

 • "The FCC should revise Form 395 to facilitate a thorough utilization analysis."

Form 395 collects data on station employment, and is used to assess compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Rule upon a station's license renewal. The form's nine job categories, however, do not provide sufficient detail, especially for decision-making and programming positions. Without these revisions, challenging groups are in a Catch-22, since "discovery" (or, the collection of additional data) is allowed only when the FCC accepts a Petition to Deny. And the FCC rarely, if ever, accepts a petition that alleges employment discrimination on the basis of statistical under-representation alone (that is, on the data available from Form 395).[3]

3. We are currently at the onset of the next structural change in the television industry, with new communications technologies such as fiber optics predicted to supplant both cable and over-the-air broadcast. These changes raise fundamental issues about public, educational and governmental access, In a report published November 1992 by National Video Resources, researchers concluded that a brief "window of necessity" of no more than four years exists in order

"to assert the public interest, reframe the debate in terms of democratic and social consequences, and involve legislators and the public in deciding the key questions of public policy."[4]

These vast and uncertain changes suggest the need for a major investigation of the media in order to ensure that civil rights and equal employment opportunity are part of the communications "superhighway" of the 21st century. Notice that no one is calling this new entity a "freeway" — it is a commercial venture — even though its infrastructure will no doubt he financed by the federal government, and its revenue will derive in some measure from already-diminished education and library budgets. There exists a similar need to examine the Latino population, which will become the largest minority group in the same time period. For the issue at hand, however, the problem can be broken down into three major areas: audiences, portrayals, and employment.

1. Audiences

With respect to audiences, there are two issues: consumption (ratings) and impact. In a Nielsen study commissioned by Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, researchers discovered weekly primetime HUT (homes using television) levels of 61% for Hispanic families, compared with a 54% average for the entire market.[5] Hispanics watched an average of 57 hours, 58 minutes of television a week, compared to 47 hours a week watched by viewers overall. Blacks watched an average of 69 hours a week.[6]

The fact of a strong minority audience base[7] often leads community and media activists to expect or demand the television industry to exhibit some level of responsibility for this market. The change that has occurred, however, comes not from producers and broadcasters, but from advertisers, whose expenditures directed at Hispanic consumers have grown 20% in recent years. After all, Hispanics spend nearly $200 billion on consumer goods each year.[8] In one sense, these figures almost argue against changes in minority portrayal and employment, since the Hispanic population is presented as a pre-existing market that already displays the requisite or desired characteristics for profit: it is large, centralized, with strong product loyalty, and watches a lot of television. In other words, these figures help networks sell commercial time, and create an impetus for both minority-specific and integrated commercials,[9] but in and of themselves do little to facilitate other changes.

The recent Senate hearings on television violence point to another way in which audiences have become the fulcrum for regulation of the industry. In an oft-cited report, the American Psychological Association (APA) calculated that the average U.S. child, by the seventh grade, has watched 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television:

"Accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior…Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive program: also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to solve conflicts."[10]

What is interesting in these recent studies and Senate hearings is that for the most part attention has been placed on the abstract viewer of violence, usually a child, and not on the nature of the violence depicted: Who hits whom. In fact, I have found just one mention in the popular press of such a study, again by the APA, which concluded that women, elderly individuals and minorities are disproportionately cast a victims of television violence.[11] In other words, if there is indeed a causal correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior, it is not a universal one, but rather one targeted at specific groups. Could it be that television violence reinforces "attitudes and values" in which aggression is an acceptable tool in "resolving" perceived conflicts with women and minorities? Admittedly, such questions are not popular outside of the social sciences. In the Senate, it is a matter of coalition politics between liberal and conservative forces, while in the humanities, it is a problem of or with empiricism.

Nonetheless, there remains an unanswered question about how to approach the issue from a social or communitarian perspective within an arena dominated by the economic and the political. In the end, empirical studies were never ends in themselves, but rather the basis for an appeal for adherence to an established moral, economic, or legal framework. For the APA, the empirical studies resulted in little more than a call for the FCC to return to the underlying principle of the Communication Act of 1934: namely, that broadcasters must serve the public interest, convenience and necessity to retain their licenses. No one noted the irony that such an appeal was needed in order for the government to enforce the law, an observation that might have revealed the class and racial bias inherent in the concurrent "tough on crime" rhetoric of politicians.

2. Minority portrayals

Hispanics comprise about 10% of the U.S. population, but are featured in only 1% of the roles of primetime television series, and even less in major films.[12] In an extrapolation of data in Window Dressing on the Set, I have calculated that Hispanic characters accounted for just 0.7% of continuing roles on primetime from 1969 to 1977. The figure for 1992 is 0.8%, or five continuing Latino roles. In addition to overall representation, there is the issue of the lack of format diversity for minority characters, which tend to appear in situation comedies. Minority characters also are more likely to have lower-status occupations. From 1957 to 1987, whites played 94% of television's educated professionals and business executives, while Blacks played 5% and Hispanics only 1%.[13]

3. Minority employment

ACTORS: A recent report by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists noted that women, minorities, older people, and the disabled are vastly underrepresented on screen in comparison to their actual numbers in society. Minorities are even less represented during daytime television programming. Minority membership in the guild has averaged about 15% over the past decade, with roughly the same percentage of days worked: Blacks (9%), Hispanics (3.5%), Asian American (2%), and Native American (0.5%). According to Professor George Gerbner, the study's director,

"in an inescapable way, this ha to be seen as an indictment of civil rights, especially in a medium that is licensed not just as a business but as a public trustee."[14]

DIRECTORS: According to a Directors Guild of America (DGA) report released April 20, 1992, the number of days worked by Hispanic directors increased from 1.0% of all television and film work done in 1983 to 1.3% in 1991 — an increase of one-third of one percent in almost a decade As Director Jesús Salvado Treviño points out, at this rate, it will take 300 years for Latinos to reach parity with current national demographics.[l5] The total days worked per year for all directors rose from 28,000 in 1983 to 50,000 in 1991. In that time, female Hispanic directors worked a total of 27 days (roughly, one-ten thousandth of a percent). Blacks accounted for 2% of directors and 1.7% of days worked in the DGA in 1991. Overall, the employment of minority directors decreased from 5% in 1983 to 3% in 1991. In 1988, no minority directors were hired by the studios and networks.[16]

WRITERS: In a recent report, the Writers Guild of American, West, noted that between 1987 to 1991 the pay gap for racial minorities narrowed from 54¢ for every dollar earned by whites to 79¢. This figure applies to television only, since too few minority writers work on movies in order to establish a clear pattern. Minority screen and television writers account for 4% of the guild's membership, with Latinos accounting for 0.7%. For all minorities, employment increased by no more than 1%: In television, from 2.9% (1987) to 3.9% (1991); and in film, from 2.0% (1987) to 2.6% (1991).[17] Again, at these rates, it will take over 100 years for minorities to reach parity with current national demographics. These opportunities are further limited to situation comedies, without significant role in decision-making. In the usual scenario, minority writers are often hired to check for correct slang.[18] The few Hispanic-themed shows have never had a Hispanic writing team, let alone writer in a key role.

PRODUCTION EXECUTIVES: Little has changed since the Kerner Commission in 1968 first drew attention to the need to diversify the management level of the mass media. On 1989 spring season prime time programs, only 7% of producers were racial minorities (12 of 169).[19] And, according to the NAACP, only 2.5% of production executives at major Hollywood companies are racial minorities (5 out of 200).[20] The 1989 Hollywood Writers' Report offers more comprehensive figures: 1.3% of all primetime executive producers and co-executive producers, and 1.6% of all producers and co-producers were minorities.[21] The number of minorities in hyphenate positions (writer-producer) has remained constant at about 5% over the past decade.[22] In the commission's own briefing paper, "Minorities in the Entertainment Television Industry," decision-making positions are identified as the crux for significant change in the industry.


While the figures for portrayal and employment have stayed the same (in 1983 in JUMP CUT 28, Jesús Treviño called it the "2% factor"), the percentage of racial minorities continues to increase relative to the total U.S. population. The Latino population in particular has nearly doubled in the past two decades, from 4.5% in 1970 to 8.2% in 1990.[23] (These figures are from the U.S. census and are considered inaccurate, with the actual current percentage usually put at between 9% and 10%.) Neither the industry nor media advocates have revealed how the exponential increase in the Latino population changes the significance of the near-constant industry figures. This change occurs because the Latino population doubles both in real numbers — from 9.1 million (1970) to 20.1 million (1990) — and as a percentage within the total U.S. population. Thus, beneath the apparent statistical stasis within the industry lurks a situation in which actual employment opportunity and equitable representation have decreased by about 50% for the Latino population.

From a market-based perspective, minority under-representation is explained as a result of the need for a "universal appeal" that will satisfy the perceived taste and expectations of the prime time audience.[24] Minority themes and characters represent too much of a risk factor. But between 70 and 75% of new television series are cancelled in their first year.[25] Of the 34 television series that premiered in 1992, only 8 continued to 1993, a success rate of 23.5%. In other words, following formats and actors with proven "track records" fails to achieve a "universal appeal" three out of four times. By its very nature, prime time television is a high-risk enterprise; so it is not a question of whether the industry takes risks, but of whom it lets do so.

These contradictions reveal an unspoken problem with the numbers game: Those who opt to play must assume/ attribute some notion of merit, rationality, and authority on the part of the system or institution whose rules define the game. But the game often becomes an end in itself, the impossible first step toward (1) obtaining the rights and protections already written into the law, and (2) the supposed opportunities or level playing field" of the free market system.

As I prepared for the hearings, I spoke with a number of Chicano producers and media professionals, who reminded me that Latinos have been "playing the numbers game" for over two decades without success. The industry was too powerful and unaccountable. By the end of my panel I had come to understand their position all too well as commissioners' questions focused on the viewer — white and minority — and not the institution.

The hearings were presented to the press as a series of panels that would deal with

"the effect of news media and television entertainment programming on America's perception of race and ethnicity."[26]

But while the commission's news release emphasized issues of "portrayal" and "perception," the actual testimonies often attempted to redirect the commissioners' attention to their actual bailiwick: equal employment opportunity. For over a decade, attention to issues of content and impact had operated within an ideology of the individual. If television had an impact on individual viewers, then it was up to those viewers to realize that "the power to reform television is in your hand" and change channels.

In the meantime, entertainment television operated as a business that also had civil rights, in particular, freedom of speech. This strategic anthropomorphism undercut the legal framework that established communitarian concerns — or, the "public interest" — aa a third point between free market and free speech. As a consequence, television acquired (and conflated) both freedoms, playing one off against the other in order to evade the demands of minority or community groups for access, employment, and more equitable representation. Demands for employment violated producers' artistic expression; while demands for "positive images" impeded the industry's profit motive. Or so the argument went.

Thus, despite the Communication Act of 1934, television operated in pretty much the same way as did Hollywood studios when it came to issues of equal employment opportunity and equitable representation. This is a point made clear in the recent reports by the guilds, which deal with both networks and studios.

The hearings came at a time of transition within the commission, as its conservative hegemony was about to come to an end. In addition, various sectors of the government had turned to the media as a "new" public policy issue, from the "information superhighway" to the impact of violence. Finally, the guilds released major reports in the period just before the hearings. In testimony before the commission, advocates and experts offered "access" as a solution to content and impact issues. In this view, minority employment within all levels of the industry — or, in sociological terms, structural assimilation — would lead to the desired changes in the types of series produced without a violation of the First Amendment.

To this suggestion, I added that no trainee programs be involved in the process, since these have not lead to increased employment, but rather perpetuate pay disparities, undermine the guilds, and give studios falsely inflated minority employment numbers, publicity, and tax benefits.

In response to the commissioners' line of questioning — which worked backwards from establishing a problem to fleshing out its emotional and social impact on individuals — I found myself questioning the commissioners themselves, asking if we really needed to prove that media had an impact on viewers, that minorities were underemployed in the industry, and that minorities were underrepresented in movies and entertainment television. In other words, did we really have to continue playing the numbers game, or could we move on to the practical steps that would solve these problems? Coming at the end of the panel, my questions were ones that the report will have to answer.

Looking back at the past twenty years, however, progress has been the product of protests, boycotts, and takeovers more often than government regulation and adjudication. As a consequence, progress has also been sporadic and piecemeal. Undoubtedly, this will not be the answer given by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in its report. More likely, the commission will identify many of the same problems that it did in 1979, and, as it did then, will call for additional, more accurate data with which to bolster its critique of the FCC and the regulatory process. It is difficult not to become cynical about the hearings and the eventual report, however noble the intentions of the commission. There is, after all, a problematic assumption behind the numbers game: namely, that the statistical substantiation of discrimination will reform the film and television industries once that information is brought to light.

In another context, Henri Lefebvre refers to this assumption as the "illusion of transparency" in which communication (of information, knowledge) alone acts to transform social space. The result is a belief in "freedom of expression" that pays no attention to the physical and institutional structures that limit access to social space.[27] What Lefebvre suggests, then, is that the numbers game is more a strategy of power than a search for knowledge. What these numbers ultimately "mean" will depend on the power relations within which they are asserted.


1. These local concerns in Washington, D.C. — and the need for an investigation — were brought to national attention following civil disturbances in May 1991 that erupted alter a rookie police officer shot a Salvadoran man during an arrest for public drinking. See U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination. Volume I: The Mount Pleasant Report. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1993).

2. I am paraphrasing Fletcher's rather frank comments during the hearings after l asked him to clarify the commission's own motivations and intentions for the hearings.

3. Despite pressure in the 1970s from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the courts, the FCC continued to deny hearings filed on behalf of women and racial minorities. For an overview, see U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1977), chapter 7. The three recommendations are taken from U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Window Dressing on the Set. An Update. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1979), pp. 62-64.

4. Jeffrey Chester and Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D., "Media in Transition: Independents & the Future of Television," National Video Resources Reports no. 10 (November 1992).

5. Variety, December 10, 1990, p. 31

6. Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1992, p. F3.

7. According to the NAACP, racial minorities account for 35% of the movie going audience. Variety, September 10, 1990, p.5.

8. Variety, December 10, 1990, p. 31.

9. This appears to be confirmed by a recent report by the Screen Actors Guild, which found the rate of employment for Hispanics in television commercials (combined on- and off-air principals) to be about twice that of theatrical films (4%) and television (3%). Screen Actors Guild, "Employment in Entertainment: The Search For Diversity: A SAG Statistical Survey of Ethnicity, Age, and Gender in Film, Television, and Commercials," June 15, 1993,

10. Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1993. M4.

11. Albuquerque Journal, February 26, 1992, p. A3.

12. Allen L. W0ll and Randall M. Miller, "Hispanic Americans," Ethnic and Racial Images in American Film and Television: Historical Essays and Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987), pp. 243-259.

13. David Atkin. "An Analysis of Television Series with Minority Lead Characters," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 9 (1992): 337-349.

14. Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1993, p. P9; and Screen Actors Guild, "Employment in Entertainment," June 15, 1993.

15. Jesús Salvador Treviño, Hispanic (August 1992): 76.

6. "DGA Figures on Days Worked by Women and Minorities," News release, April 20, 1992, Directors Guild of America; Variety, April 21, 1992, pp. 1, l8; Jesús Salvador Treviño, "Looking Beyond the Statistics," DGA News (June-July 1992), pp. 13-14.

17. William T. Bielby, and Denise D. Bielby, The 1993 Hollywood Writers Report: A Survey of the Employment of Writers in the Film, Broadcast, and Cable Industries for the Period 1987-1991 (June 1993).

18. Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1993, p. F2.

19. Sally Steenland, Unequal Picture: Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American Characters on Television (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Working Women of Wider Opportunities for Women, August 989), p. 37.

20. Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1992, p. P2.

21. William T. Bielby, and Denise D. Bielby, The 1989 Hollywood Writers' Report: Unequal Access, Unequal Pay (April 1989), p. 19

22. William T. Bielby, and Denise D. Bielby, The 1993 Hollywood Writers Report (June 1993), p.32.

23. Frank L. and Renee Schick, eds. Statistical Handbook on U.S. Hispanics (Phoenix: Onyx Press, 1991).

24. As the Commission noted in its 1977 Findings, "The presentation of minorities and women in a representative and realistic manner has been impeded by an assumption that do to so would diminish televisions use as a medium whose programming is designed primarily to attract the largest possible audience." There is no response or refutation of this assumption in the findings. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1977), p. 148.

25. Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1992, p. F1; and Broadcasting, March 9, 1992, p. 21.

26. "Rights Commission Sets Los Angeles Hearings," News release, May 26, 1993, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

27. Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), pp. 27-29.