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Colorblind in Hollywood
For the first time since the 1960s, ethnic diversity in media emerges as a public issue.

Despite the well-documented growth of the Hispanic community as a political and market force, Hispanics enter the 21st century with a lower level of media access and representation than when protests first raised the issued in the 1960s. As The Hollywood Reporter recently noted, “Hispanics have historically been the most underrepresented of all the minority groups in film and TV, and there is no sign that their numbers are increasing.” In fact, guild figures released in late 1999 show significant declines from the previous year: from 4 percent to 3.5 percent for actors, and from 3.1 percent to 2.3 percent for directors. Hispanics make up just 1.3 percent of the writers for prime-time television.

But that’s not the real bad news. While these numbers have remained almost constant for the last three decades, the Hispanic community itself has grown from 4.5 percent of the national population in 1970 to 11.5 percent in 2000. In other words, there are roughly two and a half times more Hispanics getting the same small percentage of jobs. And in Los Angeles, where the film and television industry is located, Hispanics make up around 45 percent of the population.

The industry has achieved consensus about the cause of the problem: a lack of Hispanics in decision-making positions. In a survey conducted for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, I found that Spanish-surnamed employees accounted for 1.9 percent of the executive positions at major studios and networks. In no instance did a Hispanic executive occupy a creative decision-making position. Roughly 60 percent of networks and studios do not employ any Hispanic executives.

Why? According to the industry itself, the reason is simply economic. Hispanics may be a disproportionately large market, but they are not “distinct enough” as consumers to be able to demand inclusion on the production side. That’s right, we’re too mainstream to gain admittance to the executive suite. What the industry is really trying to argue is that it operates by economic rationale alone.

In fact, the industry is relatively small and its key players all tend to know each other. Hispanics have not been part of that crowd. The entertainment industry already has an extraordinarily high failure rate (around 75 percent for new television series and not much better for movies), and one look at Kevin Costner’s mega-budget box-office duds throws any sense of logic out the window. But in the absence of a formula for success, the industry has invented one around itself, going with the actors, producers, and formats it already knows. These do not provide a higher success rate, but they give executives a greater comfort factor than gambling on the unknown.

If 1999 signaled an all-time low for minority representation—best exemplified by the all-white casts for the 26 new prime-time series in the fall—it also witnessed the first national Hispanic advocacy efforts since the early 1970s. The most notable movement involved the creation of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Ironically, these 250 Hispanic producers—as a professional group with defining characteristics and accomplishments—have almost no visibility in the press, the industry, and even the media advocacy groups fighting on their behalf. They are simply not part of the debate, and hence they are never identified as part of the solution. But these are precisely the people who will make the Hispanic images that are currently missing from mainstream film and television. Now that they have organized, where are the Hispanic executives?


Chon A. Noriega, March 2000, Hispanic Business

Copyright © 2000 Hispanic Business Inc. All rights reserved.