Minorities in Southern Television: Visibility But Little Control
By Faye McDonald Smith
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979, pp. 3,26-29
The days are over – pretty much – when Black people would do a double take when they turned on the television set and saw one of their own as a news reporter. They may have squinted their eyes and perked up their ears to look and listen a bit more intently. They were, after all, “checking out” the new personality, and they wanted to make sure that every hair was in place and every word in syntax. For what that person said and did, how he or she looked and acted, was somewhat representative of Black people in general. If the reporter flubbed it, there was a collective sigh of embarrassment; if he or she performed favorably, there was that communal sense of pride, right-on and a job well done.
Those days are over pretty much. Now, Black news reporters and anchor people are not an uncommon lot; and while there are still some television stations which have yet to embark upon this new frontier, in recent years there has been a significant increase in on-air Black talent.
Due largely to FCC and EEOC rulings, local television stations have hired more minority reporters, anchor people and program hosts, some of whom have brought strong personalities and higher ratings to the stations. But the old adage “strength in numbers” does not apply here. The increased minority participation amounts to higher visibility on the screen, but little managerial input in the board room – or elsewhere.
A 1977 report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights entitled Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television, made this finding:
“In comparison with their presence in the work force in general, a relatively high proportion of minority females (and to a lesser extent minority males) are employed in visible positions as on-the-air talent. Increased visibility on the screen without comparable representation in decision making positions suggests that, minorities and women serve merely as window dressing.”
In making its report, the Commission used data from 40 major market commercial and public television stations. As a follow-up to that initial report, the Commission released more current data in January of this year in Window Dressing on the Set: an Update. That report cited “no significant increase in the percentages of minorities and women employed as officials and managers in the 40 station sample.” The report further stated that the vast majority of the official and manager positions at the stations were held by White males, and in contrast, “the percentages of Black male and Black female officials and managers are significantly lower than the overall percentages of Black employment.” The percentage
breakdown of all officials and managers at the stations was defined as such: White males, 64.9%; White females, 21.3%; Black males, 5.2%; Black females, 4.4%; Hispanic males, 1.7%; Hispanic females, 0.8%; other minorities, less than 1.7%.
Another finding from Window Dressing is perhaps even more indicative of the under representation of Blacks in managerial positions. The report cites that although many minorities and women had impressive job titles, their low salaries and locations on organizational charts implied an artificially inflated job status.
Hattie Jackson can attest to that. As program coordinator at WXIATV, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, Jackson acts as the liaison between the network, the syndicators, and her station.
“In my opinion, sixty percent of Blacks in broadcasting are FCC commitments. My title is, I think. Supposedly, I’m a woman in management, but in essence, I’m considered a secretary. Regardless of how much (Black) people want to believe it, who may say to me ‘you run the programming department,’ I do not have any policy-making power.”
Jackson says she does the majority of the work in the programming department, and that at times her opinion is sought; however, her requests to sit in on department head meetings have been denied. She says she can’t categorically claim racism, because her White counterpart at another Atlanta station has the same problem. Racism or sexism – take your choice. The reluctance on the part of management to afford minorities and women decision making opportunities seems prevalent.
“I know where I want to get in TV,” says Jackson, who states confidently that she will be a program director. “I have a timetable and I know that you cannot change people’s hearts or heads. You must know where you want to go and if it means leaving – then go. I think you have to take a stand; you have to take a risk.”
Black women working in television in the South are making gains in the broadcasting industry, according to a recent study by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. The study indicated that television was far ahead of radio in employment of minority news staffers, and that most of the progress has been made in the South, where minority employment is highest.
The RTNDA study found that seventy-one percent of all television stations reported minority employment, compared to only twenty percent of radio stations. In the South, the statistics were higher, with eighty-three percent of the television stations having minorities on staff, compared to thirty-one percent of the radio outlets. Nearly twenty-five percent of the women working in television news were members of minority groups, and the study applauded “impressive gains” by Black women among the news staffs of the nation’s broadcast stations.
A close look at the job classifications, however, clearly indicates that while Black women are increasing in numbers on broadcast news staffs, they remain far behind in managerial positions. Of the 26,547 employees classified as officials and managers in the RTNDA study, 1,975 are minorities. Of that total, 643 are Black males; 388 Black females.
“It’s true that Black women are hired more often (than Black men), but in terms of moving into managerial positions, perhaps Black men are getting the better shake. However, the situation is so bleak overall, that the difference is miniscule. Less than one half of one percent of Blacks are in real decision making jobs.”
Such is the assessment of William Dilday, general manager of WLBT, the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss. The only Black general manager of a VHF station in the U.S., Dilday categorizes “decision making jobs” into three major levels: a) general manager, general sales manager, program director; b) news director, chief engineer, production manager; c) promotion manager, programming manager, news assignment director.
“These people usually control what you see and hear, who’s hired and fired, what vendors are used in the disbursement of funds,” says Dilday.
At WLBT, which has a viewing audience of one million, Dilday has appointed a Black production manager, public service director, children’s program director, and assistant news director. He says he looks for people who are trainable and that if someone’s a good administrator in education, that person could adapt to television administration, or if someone is a good salesperson, then he or she could adapt to television sales.
“With a forty percent Black staff,
there’s no way all those people were qualified when they walked in the door at WLBT. But they were qualifiable, and that must be considered.”
Dilday attributes the paucity of Blacks in policy making positions to the lack of a true commitment by television management to open up such jobs. He also faults what he calls institutionalized racism.
“We’re fighting against the good ol’ boy network, where Joe Jones will call up Jim Smith to recommend somebody. There’re so few of us in the industry getting those calls and able to refer.”
Perhaps another reason for the dragging of feet by top management to include more Blacks in their ranks is due to a rather nasty and prevalent human trait – greed. People in power tend to hold on to it, are often obsessed by it, and don’t like to share it. In addition, the possibility of younger, aggressive professionals who could take over, and perhaps perform more efficiently, looks as a not-so-distant threat to many television executives. To their way of thinking, it is simply best to restrict the numbers of qualified applicants. The fewer, the better.
And when there are qualified minority applicants to move into managerial positions, the rules of the game often change. In one instance at a television station in a large Southeastern market, the program director left, and the Black woman who had worked as his assistant would have been next in line for the job. She didn’t get it. Instead, the entire programming department was revamped, a former engineer was brought in, and titles and responsibilities switched around.
“I think most of us agree that there ought to be more Black program managers,” says A.R. Van Cantfort, president of the National Association of Television Program Managers and program director of WSB-TV, the NBC Atlanta affiliate.
“We’ve discussed this a number of times at our meetings, and we certainly need to encourage more in that area. However, becoming a program manager just doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t want to overplay the job, but in addition to programming responsibilities, there are many other facets involved, like negotiating contracts, license renewal, handling temperamental talent.”
Ed Jones, newly appointed Black program manager at WDVM Channel 9 in Washington, D.C., agrees with VanCantfort.
“A person must know station operations. He can’t just walk in and say, ‘I want to be a program manager,’ and expect to be trained for it.”
Jones worked at the Washington, D.C., CBS affiliate as an assistant program manager at WSSB-TV in Hartford, Conn. He is one of only two Black program managers in commercial television. John Robinson at WTEV in New Bedford, Mass., is the other.
“We’re lacking Black program managers for the same reason so few minorities are at influential levels in other aspects of business,” says Jones. “There’s a lack of sensitivity to seek out such people and hire them at that level. The entire industry is bad.”
The case for more Black television managers is certainly evident, but at the same time, the positions of those Blacks who do have high visibility – the on-air reporters and anchor persons – should not be taken for granted. Often, a station believes it has met its “minority commitment” with the hiring of one Black personality.
Diana Fallis has worked as a reporter for nearly five years at KTRK, the ABC affiliate in Houston. For the past two years, she has also worked as the week-end anchor.
“I was one of the first Blacks to do so in the Houston market,” says Fallis, and that’s just .week-end. There are no Black anchors in Houston aside from week-end, and Houston has a Black population of well over 400,000.”
The situation in New Orleans does not appear much better, according to Lester Soublat, continuity director for WYES, the city’s public television station.
“New Orleans has a history of old money tied very much to the social scene in the city, and while that doesn’t necessarily dominate politics (as evidenced by a Black mayor), for a city with a 40 percent Black population, we are woefully underrepresented.”
Soublat is responsible for all on air promotion and public service an-
nouncements, and he says if Black organizations and activities are not getting enough coverage on the commercial stations, he tries to compensate by running their spots more frequently. He says that Blacks need to pool their resources together because “in this city, Blacks don’t have significant management positions or visibility.”
As in many other cities, Black broadcasters in New Orleans have tried to organize to share information on employment opportunities in the industry, and to provide workshops, seminars, and mutual support. Some of these groups, such as NOBIC (New Orleans Blacks in Communications) were proven to have some impact. When it was rumored that one of the local stations wanted to fire a Black newscaster, NOBIC ran a discreet campaign to let the station management know that the newscaster had strong support in the community, and consequently, NOBIC has been credited with helping to secure the broadcaster’s job.
On-air positions, while not managerial, still need to be maintained and increased, believes Phil Evans, host of a public television program on WYES.
“In a city such as New Orleans with a large Black population, you’d expect to see a reflection of this on the air. Management would argue that while it’s true the city proper is predominantly Black, when you consider the signal range of the television station, Whites make up the majority of the viewing audience. And they believe this justifies low minority representation.”
In addition to his role as a host, Evans is also the producer and project director of “Schools: Insight” a $120,000 federally funded program which provides information to help Louisiana parents and public school systems adjust to desegregation.
Evans says he likes working in public television, and that even though it doesn’t compete with commercial salaries or shatter the ratings books, he thinks public television offers him more of an outlet to expand his talents.
Few may argue that public television provides more creative flexibility than commercial television, but in turn, does public television also offer greater upward mobility for minorities?
“No,” believes Ed Jones of Washington, D.C.’s WDVM. “Once you get beyond the layers of bureaucracy, and really look into the ranks of broadcasting, you’ll find that public television is probably worse. It doesn’t have as much visibility and therefore can get away with more, and just like Congress, the biggest offenders of affirmative action are often those agencies which are supposed to regulate it.”
Current information from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting indicates the paucity of Blacks and other minorities in management positions at public television stations in the Southeast. Based on full time employment data as of March of this year, the CPB survey shows that Whites make up an overwhelming 93.4 percent of all officials and managers. The breakdown by sex and race is as follows: White males, 69.4%; White females, 24%; Black males, 1.9%; Black females, 2.6%; Hispanic males, 1.3%; Hispanic females, 0.4%; other minorities, 0.4%.*
While William Dilday of WLBT is the lone Black general manager of a commercial VHF station in the continental U.S., public television has no Black general manager among its 250-plus stations. And the only minority general manager in public television is John Siqueiros, who heads KCOS in El Paso, a Texas city with a 60 percent Hispanic population.
While commercial television can boast of all of two Black program managers, public television’s record is scarcely better, with only a handful of Black program managers nationwide. In the Southeast, there is only one – Ray Dennell at WLRN, the smaller of the two public television stations in Miami.
Wayne Godwin, director of station relations for PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, readily admits of the need for Blacks in top station management jobs. But he says that in monitoring minority representation, one should also look at the national policy making boards which govern the local stations. In this instance, PBS can point to Stanley Evans, a Black member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maine, who is currently head of the PBS Programming Committee.
Godwin also mentions the significant role of the local program producers such as those who work in the area of minority or community affairs.
“I was once a program director,” says Godwin, “and relied heavily on producers for local programmatic content. Although they are removed from station policy, their input in their programs reflects their sensitivity to their audience and we shouldn’t downplay their importance.”
According to Godwin, there’s a “keen sensitivity” in PBS to the need for more minority participation, but that sensitivity has yet to translate itself into more jobs for minorities among the hierarchy. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently funded a Minority Task Force Report which was highly critical of public broadcasting’s role in the hiring
and promotion of minorities. The major conclusion was that minority programming was seriously deficient due to an inadequate number of minorities employed in the system, especially in decision making positions.
Efforts are being made, albeit slowly, to improve the minority employment picture in public broadcasting. The National Association of Educational Broadcasters has set up a personnel service to help minorities in career placements. Last year, the program, known as PACT (People and Careers in Telecommunications) placed 158 individuals, of which thirteen percent were minorities. Most of the jobs were in the midlevel range, from executive program producers to camera operators and other technicians, positions which PACT director Joe Schubert defines as “the working guts of the system.”
The NAEB is also proposing the development of an executive recruitment program which would identify qualified minorities for top managerial positions.
Commercial television is trying to make its thrust towards increased minority ownership, an area which could certainly stand an extra boost. The Storer Broadcasting Company has established a minority ownership fund and Allbritton Communications has had a program in operation since July ’78 which is designed to advise minority groups in purchasing broadcast stations.
While these programs get an E for effort, they don’t measure up as a panacea of any sort. Commercial broadcasters can well afford to transfer some of their obsessive zeal for ratings into initiating fair promotion practices which would move minorities onto the management level – allowing them to fully use their talent and skills.
On the governmental front, the Federal Communications Commission has initiated a policy which permits broadcasters whose licenses have been designated for revocation or renewal the right to sell their properties at a “distress sale” price to parties with significant minority ownership interest. Also the Small Business Administration recently changed its policy to, allow for loan guarantees by banks at up to ninety percent for the purchase of broadcast stations and cable systems. Seven of the first thirty-two loans went to minority applicants.
But these recent and, some may argue, half-hearted efforts should not be considered as compensatory pay back. More sustained and far reaching mechanisms are needed to reverse the years of stone-walling which have blocked qualified minorities from climbing up the managerial ladder.
*Summary information was based on 13 Southeastern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia.
Television producer Faye McDonald Smith works at WETV, Channel Thirty, in Atlanta.