Grading Hispanic gains on TV? Start with ABC

Published December 8, 2005

A few months ago, I asked ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson a question: Given the huge increase in Hispanic actors on its fall lineup, was the network deliberately trying to make its casts more diverse?

"We're not out there trying to actively hire more Hispanics," said McPherson, still high on his reputation as the guy who saved the alphabet network with hits such as Lost and Desperate Housewives. "We try to be colorblind and get the best actor or actress for any role."

I figured it was the typical head fake by a network executive: Pretend you're not doing something you clearly are doing, with full knowledge the media will give you credit for something you fear may upset viewers if you actually admitted it.

But McPherson was more explicit with the New York Post, telling the newspaper in a Nov. 21 story, "I think it's been part of our initiative for a couple of years and it's something that's important to me. . . . I look at it as a business decision. There's a gigantic Hispanic audience out there."

To this, I say just one thing: It's about time.

For many years, Hispanics have been the most under-represented minority on television, with a 2000 study revealing that the country's largest ethnic minority - about 14 percent of the population - filled about 2 percent of roles in prime time.

But years of steady increases in population (35.3-million in 2000 to 41.3-million in 2004, according to the U.S. Census) and buying power ($404-billion in 2000 to $686-billion in 2004, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth) have brought a new reality in network TV, particularly at ABC.

The National Latino Media Council recognized the network TV industry's success last week in its annual report card for 2005, handing high marks to most networks for strides in casting, program development and hiring among writers and producers.

It was a striking change from fall 1999, when the council joined other groups to complain that no people of color were featured in the casts of new series at the top four TV networks.

"The diversity programs that were begun four and five years ago are now bearing fruit," NLMC president Alex Nogales said in a statement. "What (Latinos) contribute to our nation has to be more clear, so this perception counters the view of the bigots among us."

On ABC, there's Freddie Prinze Jr.'s hit sitcom Freddie, Lost's latest take-charge leader Michelle Rodriguez, Eddie Cibrian's grown-up Cuban immigrant on Invasion and new Grey's Anatomy cast member Sara Ramirez; ABC has moved aggressively this season to ensure nearly every show has a Hispanic actor in its core cast.

The network's news department followed suit this week, naming Elizabeth Vargas co-anchor of World News Tonight, making her the first Hispanic to reach the top job in network TV evening news.

It's what you might expect from the network that also was the first to feature subtitles or secondary audio programs offering Spanish translations for all its prime-time shows. They also offered the first regular series character who only speaks Spanish with English subtitles: the character of Prinze's grandmother, who appears on a show featuring four Hispanic actors.

And it's not just ABC that has finally awakened to the reality of diversity. Look to NBC and see Benjamin Bratt on NBC's E-Ring (okay, he does play a guy named J.T. Tisnewski - with no explanation of the guy's heritage), John Leguizamo in a high-profile turn on ER, Miguel Sandoval as a down-to-earth district attorney on Medium and Jimmy Smits running for president on The West Wing.

Behind the scenes, Greg Garcia (whose great-grandfather was Mexican entertainer Cantinflas) is producing NBC's only comedy hit, My Name is Earl, while Jennifer Lopez's Nuyorican Films production company is developing the night-time soap opera South Beach for UPN.

Considering that last season there were only three new TV series prominently featuring Hispanics - Lost, Housewives and UPN's ill-fated Jonny Zero - this year's surge in new characters feels like a virtual avalanche.

"I'm the youngest executive producer ABC has ever had, and I'm the only Puerto Rican," Prinze said. "You think about the number of Hispanics who have led their own (successful sitcoms), and you've got something like four in the history of this business."

Five years ago, Freddie executive producer Bruce Helford quizzed ABC executives on whether they were serious about airing a sitcom pilot featuring an up-and-coming Mexican comic named George Lopez. Now that Lopez's self-titled sitcom is a hit, Helford sees the network taking the next logical step.

"It's a huge financial risk - each pilot costs a couple million - and until George's show, there had been no successful (Hispanic cast) shows," Helford said. "They believed in George's show, believed in more Hispanic representation, and now, for everybody, it makes sense to take more risk."

Indeed, statistics show Hispanics watch an average four more hours of prime-time TV each week and have a median age nearly 10 years younger than the general population. Why wouldn't a smart network go after a wealthier, younger segment of the population that the TV industry has traditionally ignored?

"We know that the Hispanic audience has a very powerful voice," said CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, whose self-described "Russia-rican" heritage (Russian father, Puerto Rican mother) likely makes her the most powerful Hispanic woman in network TV. "This year, we really tried to increase the numbers of Hispanics in our existing shows and our new shows. It is increasingly important to our advertisers."

A look at the top-rated English-language TV shows in Hispanic households shows the strategy may be paying off.

Just a couple of years ago, that roster was topped by shows such as American Idol and Fear Factor; during the week of Nov. 14, it included four ABC series featuring Hispanics in prominent roles: Desperate Housewives, Lost, George Lopez and Freddie.

Already, viewers have reaped benefits with more complex and varied characters, from Eva Longoria and Ricardo Chavira's bickering couple on Desperate Housewives to Cibrian's grown-up Cuban orphan on Invasion. Such characters are a welcome relief from the parade of gang-bangers, gardeners and maids Hispanic actors were often forced to play.

Still, such close counting sometimes feels awkward, even to Hispanic actors who would like to see more diversity in the industry.

Actor Kiele Sanchez, whose blond hair and blue eyes belie her Puerto Rican and French heritage, has never played a Latina on screen, and is currently cast as an Italian woman on the WB drama series Related. She often jokes about such issues with co-star Jennifer Esposito, a New York-born Italian who is often cast as a Hispanic woman - most recently in the hit film, Crash.

"I've never played a Hispanic, because people don't believe that I am," Sanchez said. "The image people still have in the industry is that Latinas have to have dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin. It's like, have you turned on Telemundo lately?"

Meanwhile, other ethnic minorities, particularly Asian-Americans, have criticized stagnant hiring levels for their groups. And former NYPD Blue star Esai Morales remains wary the current hiring boom will fade.

"We live in a world that is so media saturated, if the media doesn't show it, the public doesn't know it," Morales said in an interview earlier this year. "And if people of ethnicity are not allowed to express their own reality, then they are being suppressed."

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/