What's Wrong With This Picture?

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It was a proud moment for Hispanic Americans last week when NBC unveiled its fall schedule in New York City. The network showed a clip of a rare TV show: a sitcom with a strong, charismatic Latino lead and broad audience appeal.

The bad news: the show was Chico and the Man, part of a reel of highlights from NBC's history. By and large, major Hispanic TV characters are still just that, history--Freddie Prinze's Chico, Desi Arnaz's Ricky Ricardo--even though Latinos are America's fastest-growing minority, now roughly equal in number to African Americans. The disparity is not new, but it has never been so embarrassingly glaring. According to the 2000 Census, Hispanic Americans number 35 million, or 12.5% of the population, a nearly 58% jump since 1990. But on TV? A report by the advocacy group Children Now found that in prime time, the number of Hispanic characters dropped since last season, from 3% to 2%. (Blacks make up 17%, the study found, Asian Americans 3% and Native Americans 0.2%; they are 12.3%, 3.6% and 0.9% of the population.) In all of prime time, Hispanics account for only 47 out of 2,251 characters. As for nonfiction TV, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that Latino correspondents reported only 1.3% of all network evening-news stories in 2000.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the N.A.A.C.P. and affiliated groups attacked the lack of diversity on TV and threatened boycotts in 1999, the networks recast series, appointed diversity czars and instituted minority recruitment and training programs. Last year, with the media and activists looking over the networks' shoulders, those efforts produced results--mostly African Americans plugged into ensembles. But there is no Latino Cosby Show or even Steve Harvey Show. Hispanics still have trouble getting parts other than the perp, the victim or that newly resurgent figure, the maid/nanny. (A rare exception was Esai Morales, recently added to NYPD Blue as Lieutenant Tony Rodriguez.) In the Latino actors' community, the scarcity of roles makes casting "like throwing meat to hungry dogs," says Lisa Vidal, who co-stars as a cop on Lifetime's police drama The Division. "Most of us don't want to play only the victim or the accused roles, but we have to pay the rent."

As for Latino producers, the diversity controversy provided brief entree. To a point. Jeff Valdez, producer of Nickelodeon's The Brothers Garcia, says he began to get calls from networks that had blown him off before. "So I pitched three shows and never got a return call," he says. "Now they can say they met with a real Hispanic and move on with their business."

Film director Gregory Nava (El Norte) did parlay that moment into a TV deal, but not with a commercial network. CBS signed him to make American Family, a drama pilot starring Edward James Olmos, Sonia Braga and Raquel Welch, unusual in that it portrayed a Latino family whose kids are upscale strivers. CBS passed but let Nava shop it around. The show landed at PBS, which will air 13 episodes next season. Cable has filled in some of the breach too, notably on Showtime's Resurrection Blvd., TV's first Hispanic drama, returning in June. Creator Dennis Leoni says the story, about a family with roots in the boxing world, "was the perfect metaphor of Latinos trying to fight, literally and figuratively, for a piece of the American Dream."

But network series remain dominated by white male writers inclined to write about what they know--themselves--and Hispanics are scarcely present in TV's executive suites. "Why can't they change the role of George to Jorge?" asks Ruben Blades, who played psychiatrist Max Cabranes on ABC's just canceled Gideon's Crossing. "One argument is, We can't use Latinos because they don't have the drawing power on a national scale. But how can you acquire power if you don't get that second or third important role?"

Viewed in the larger context of pop culture, the no-crossover argument seems downright archaic. We've gone from the Freddie Prinze era to the Freddie Prinze Jr. era. This year's movie action comedy Spy Kids took the No. 1 spot at the box office with a story about a family of spies who just happened to be Hispanic, but you would have had a hard time pitching the idea as a TV series. Young whites had no problem embracing Popstars, the WB reality show about a girl group, three of whose five members were Hispanic.

But these successes, and the Census figures, are not reflected in the fall schedules unveiled last week, in which Latino actors are few and characters fewer. Network diversity executives insist that they're trying. H. Mitsy Wilson of Fox cites the network's outreach to minority groups and says, "Our goal is to place Hispanic writers on all shows." Says CBS senior vice president/diversity Josie Thomas: "We're working on it. There are opportunities for guest stars, recurring roles are still open. This isn't the end of the story."

Part of the problem may be the perception of Hispanics as a largely immigrant (and thus downscale) market, not interested in English-language shows. Spanish-language networks draw 35% of prime-time Hispanic viewers, but that leaves plenty to compete for. And TV still at least pretends to reflect society at large. "A lot of these shows are set in New York and L.A.," says Clara Rodriguez, a sociology professor at Fordham University and editor of the anthology Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. "We're representing the city as Hispanic-less."

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