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Diversity: An Opportunity for DTV

One of our greatest strengths as a nation is our diversity. One of the early hopes for TV was that it would allow us to better understand how others in our community, our nation, and our world live. By showing us a window on the world, TV would help bring us closer and help us become a global village. Many Americans however think TV has failed to live up to this promise. Many Americans think that TV has actually distorted our perceptions and interfered with our ability to understand others in our society.

There are twin concerns here: one concern is the predominant image of different groups as portrayed on television; the other concern is whether the issues that different groups are concerned about are fairly discussed, if at all, on television. Americans of all stripes express both of these concerns. Italian-Americans are concerned about the identification of their group with criminals. Arab-Americans are concerned about the identification of their group with religious fanatics. Businessmen, stay-at-home mothers, Christian fundamentalists are all concerned about stereotypes. Below are just a few of the challenges and just a few of the groups who see TV as a problem in a diverse society.

Women. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, has written passionately on the images of women on television. Many agree that these images, particularly the focus on body type, have a damaging impact on the way men think about adolescent girls and women. They also have a destructive impact on the way women think about themselves. Others express great concern about the ability of women to get a variety of issues they care about (such as inequality of pay, or rape) reported on fairly.1

Latino-Americans. While Latinos represent an increasingly larger percent of the population, they remain largely invisible on television. When images are presented on either news or entertainment programs, those images tend to be negative. Despite the prevalence of hardworking and prosperous Latinos in many major cities across the country, the primary image is still of a lazy, sombrero-wearing "illegal" alien. Antonia Hernandez, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argues that these false and negative images are a key reason there is little general political support for policies such as bi-lingual education. 2

African-Americans. The Kerner Commission laid some of the blame for the riots of the late 60's and early 70's on the fact that white Americans had no real knowledge of black Americans. 3Since then great strides have been made in the number of black Americans on television. While 14 percent of on-air news reporters and anchors are African-American, African Americans also represent a disproportionately large number of criminals in newscasts, and a disproportionately small number of issue experts. These distortions have a negative impact on the health of black communities, and limit our ability to truly see our neighbors. 4

One solution proposed to address the problem of diversity in broadcasting is to have a more diverse group of broadcast licensees. Currently, fewer than three percent of all minorities are licensed to use the public spectrum. Some argued that the transition to digital should open up the public spectrum to new broadcasters, but Congress decided to allocate new spectrum to existing broadcasters only.5 Still, digital TV's potential for both increased channels and interactivity could bring us even closer to realizing the early hopes of a global electronic village. More channels, or more information transmitted on a few channels, could provide us insight about each other and context on the issues we face. More channels may create room for independent producers of all colors, creeds, and religions to project their own image, and speak out on the issues they care about. More information on each channel may create opportunity for richer conversations and true debate.

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