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Latino television representation continues to be an afterthought

Latino television representation continues to be an afterthought
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Like many people homebound during the COVID pandemic, I started binge-watching television and screened all 60 “Bosch” episodes. Bosch is a brooding, laconic detective in Los Angeles with an annoying head tilt, reminiscent of David Caruso in “CSI: Miami.” Though I liked the series, what struck me was the casting: Two of the main characters are Black, appearing in all episodes, with two more appearing in two episodes. By contrast, the three Latino characters only appeared in three episodes. Los Angeles is a city where almost half the population is Latino and less than 10 percent is Black, yet “Bosch” inverted their relative prominence.

Advocacy groups long have argued that there is limited Latino television representation. Often, however, the focus has been on the declining number of Latino family shows. Citing “The George Lopez Show” and “Ugly Betty,” they lamented the Netflix cancelation of the updated Latino “One Day At a Time.” What may be more important has been the weak overall Latino representation.

To demonstrate the lack of Latino representation, I surveyed the 37 comedies and dramas that were ranked among the 50 top Nielsen-rate shows during the 2019-20 season. These shows featured 59 Black but only 20 Latino regular cast members; the disparity was virtually the same for those ranked among the top 25 and those in the next 25 ranked shows.

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Of interest, only three of the 37 shows had neither a Latino nor Black regular cast member. “Young Sheldon” and “Mom” were created by Chuck Lorre, continuing his string of similarly-casted hit series — “Two and Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The third was Matt LeBlanc’s “Man with a Plan,” not dissimilar from the “Friends” casting two decades ago.

As for TV commercials, it has been a positive change to have greater diversity. “If you’ve got a product that appeals to positively everybody, why would you shrink your audience by putting up a singular kind of talent?” said Erik Radle, CEO of the Miller Ad Agency. He says commercials that promote inclusivity can bring in new customers. From their Dallas-based office, he said 75 percent of their ads feature diversity.

As with TV dramas and comedies, it seems almost obligatory to have Black actors. Just recently, AT&T decided to transform their “Lily” commercials. In the past, Lily was the undisputed center, but recently the commercials were changed so that she is in the background while another salesperson, a Black woman, is in the foreground and the potential customer, a Black man, is given a substantive role. By contrast, Latinos appear to be an afterthought, even though the Latino national population is more than 30 percent larger than America’s Black population.

Growing diversity requirements have been a good thing and long overdue. Things have come a long way in the past five years. Recall that all nominations for the 10 Oscar acting award awards for 2015 films were white actors. Part of this was that the major films that year were historical dramas and the casting remained authentic to the race of the actual participants, rather than making alterations regarding some secondary characters, which now has become commonplace in television. 

While television has more fully and rapidly embraced diversity, it should take more seriously increasing its Latino representation.

Television executives should do this not only because Latinos are the largest minority group nationally, but also because it is important to bring immigrant groups into the broad American mural; representations of Chinese-American and Indian-American men and women also should be increased. Indeed, integrating immigrants into our national fabric should remain one of our country’s fundamental characteristics, and more diversity in television will help to further this goal.

Robert Cherry is a recently retired Brooklyn College economics professor and a member of 1776 Unites.