Coming to Your TV: The New Face of Civil Rights

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Despite the moans of aging hippies, the American civil rights movement isn't dead, it's just changing. Unlike the sit-in activists of old, today's civil rights leaders have shifted the focus of their lobbying efforts from policymakers to image-makers, reasoning that TV and movies are the most powerful sphere of influence in modern America. A watershed moment came Wednesday, when NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume shook hands with NBC president Bob Wright on a comprehensive plan for NBC to hire more minorities in its creative, production and business divisions. Most notably, NBC will add a minority writer to each show entering at least its second year next fall, a move the network says will lead to the inclusion of more minority characters.

In a similar lobbying push, in July the National Organization for Women officially changed its pressure focus from legislatures to Hollywood boardrooms, claiming that entertainment industry imagery is now the best way to effect social change. The NAACP quickly followed suit, threatening network boycotts unless the Big Four increased minority representation in their programming. NBC's the first to buck, but Mfume said agreements with the other three networks are imminent.

This entertainment industry push reflects the larger defection of the civil rights movement from the public to the private sector. In recent years, leaders such as Jesse Jackson have peppered industry leaders with the mantra that a minority focus makes good business sense — a sentiment repeated by NBC's Wright Wednesday. A big question now facing the TV industry is whether upstarts UPN and the WB network (owned by parent Time Warner), which built their viewership largely on minority-oriented programming, will go the way of third political parties that become marginalized once their issues are picked up by major parties.