"Putting the Reality Into TV"

The depiction of African-American and gay characters, and other minorities, on television has improved. But much remains to be done.
As a new television season gets under way with its bevy of sitcoms, dramas, and reality shows, the lives of African Americans and gay characters are being more accurately portrayed. That’s the opinion of alumni Gregory Adamo GSNB’01 and Steven Capsuto RC’86, who have written histories about the depiction of minorities on television. Yes, steady progress has been made, thanks to shows like The Cosby Show, Soul Food, and Ellen, which moved minority characters beyond limiting, even degrading, stereotypes. Nonetheless, much remains to be done to reflect the richness of all American lives.

- Wendy Plump,

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Your books address the portrayals of minorities in television dramas over the years. What are your perspectives now?

Gregory Adamo: “Most straight white people can do fairly well in our society without ever really being concerned about African Americans or sexual minorities. But most African Americans, Latinos, and sexual minorities have to negotiate the straight white world every day. In almost every case in which a program has diversity, the background story, the family life, and the deep relationships portrayed still focus on the white heterosexual male.”

Steven Capsuto: “It’s not so much a question of parity as proportionality. Are minority groups reflected on-screen in at least the proportions they are in society? No. Are minority characters fully formed human beings with their own stories or just sounding boards for the majority characters’ problems?”

RM: The mid-1980s saw substantial changes in the portrayal of minorities. Why?

GA: “First, the success of The Cosby Show helped propel NBC to number one for more than a decade, demonstrating that whites were willing to watch an African-American-centered program. Second, research showed that African-American households on average watch more TV than white households.”

SC: “You had generational change. Decision-making positions were beginning to be held by those who grew up in the era of antidiscrimination laws. The public, including TV writers, producers, and executives, began to see how antigay prejudice was a legitimate civil rights question and how the media was complicit in fostering prejudice.”

RM: You want minority groups to be depicted on their own terms. How do you define those terms?

SC: “I want storylines that acknowledge our LGBT status unapologetically and don’t constantly mark us as ‘other.’ I want storylines that explore other aspects of characters’ lives. It’s about balance and numbers. If you only have one or two portrayals of a minority group, there’s an awful lot riding on those portrayals. But if a cop show today happens to depict a homicidal lesbian, no one much cares because we also have portrayals of lesbian doctors and lesbian high school students.”
GA: “‘Reality television’ is the greatest perpetuator of stereotypes. Calling something ‘reality’ and then failing to show the great diversity within groups by focusing instead on the most stereotypical aspects of these groups is especially troublesome because the genre is so dominant.”
RM: Can you cite a show that gave a faithful depiction of a minority’s life, in all its nuances?
SC: “Radio and television shows of the 1930s-1950s often portrayed poor black women taking care of white middle-class people’s kids, but no one depicted her home life. With the 1970s sitcom Good Times, viewers finally got to go home with Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle) and see her as a human being with her own life—problems, hopes, loved ones—rather than just as a foil for her white boss.”
RM: What, if any, difference has programming on cable television made?
GA: “Cable has increased diversity. But the downside is more significant because the megamedia companies can put the minority-content shows on their niche cable networks, not on the major ones. This is one reason why African-American-centered comedies have disappeared from the big four networks.”
RM: What looks promising, or not, in the lineup for shows for the fall?
SC: “I’m curious to see NBC’s The New Normal, whose characters include a male couple that’s planning to have a child through a surrogate. CBS’s Partners (a male buddy sitcom) looks very funny.”
GA: “The setting for AMC’s Mad Men will be the late 1960s, a time of great change for African Americans, women, and LGBT individuals—and how white men reacted to these changes.”
Gregory Adamo is the author of African Americans in Television: Behind the Scenes (Peter Lang Publishing, 2010). Steven Capsuto is the author of Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (Ballantine Books, 2000).