Repeatedly showing people images absolutely has an affect on the way they live their lives. It’s the basis for the advertising industry. By regularly marginalizing people of color on screen, it makes it easier for people to marginalize those same populations in real life.
The answer to the question “whose responsibility is it to ensure diversity on TV” is much more complicated. Television is an industry that touches, affects and influences millions of people, yet is responsible to relatively few.
As much as we like to think that our favorite TV shows were lovingly crafted for our personal enjoyment (I mean … period costumes, British hierarchy, horses??? It’s like Dowton Abbey was penned from all the stuff I think about all day), TV shows are simply commercial products—no different really than toothpaste or T-shirts.
Studios agree to produce TV shows because networks agree to buy them. Networks agree to buy TV shows because advertisers will pay to run ads inside of them. Advertisers agree to run ads inside of TV show because they think lots and lots of people are watching.
So it behooves networks to purchase easy-to-digest, not-terribly-expensive shows that will instantly appeal to as many people as possible. There are shows that buck this trend (The Wire, anything on HBO, Rescue Me, Dexter, Mad Men, etc.) but the expense and risk incurred by those shows is generally absorbed by simpler programming with broader appeal elsewhere on the network.
Curiously, television seems to ignore some key facts about the audience they tend to ignore. African Americans make up about 13 percent of households in America that watch TV and they tend to watch more television than other groups in the population. Plus, the black population in the U.S. also tends to outspend other ethnic groups. In the last couple of years, African Americans have spent more than $900 billion on goods and services and that dollar amount is expected to eclipse the $1 trillion mark by 2015.
You would think then, that it would behoove networks to cater to the African American population more often.
[TV image via Shutterstock]