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A Call for More Minorities (and Fewer Stereotypes) on TV

JULIE SOHN, a 15-year-old Korean-American from Fremont, Calif., finds television's portrayal of minorities sadly lacking.

So does Tony Plana, a Cuban-born actor.

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And so does Carole Simpson, a senior correspondent for ABC News, who is black.

All three complain that entertainment programs do a poor job of showing people like themselves, either by failing to include minority characters or by distorting their images.

For Julie Sohn, the problem is typified by ''All-American Girl,'' an ABC sitcom about a Korean family. ''It's very stereotypical in its portrayals of Koreans,'' she says. ''Only one character is Korean, and the accents are all wrong.''

But Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment, defends the series, saying, ''The intention of the show was to show more diversity. We thought we were portraying an Asian family.''

For Mr. Plana, it is television's portrayal of Hispanics that comes up short. ''My children have no Latino children to identify with on TV,'' he says. ''When Latinos are shown, it's negative or reductive, such as casting them as gardeners.'' These roles, he adds, give children ''a very reduced sense of possibilities for themselves'' at a time when 54 percent of Latino students drop out of school.

A NEW study commissioned by Children Now, a California advocacy group, finds that just over 2 percent of the children shown on entertainment television are of Latino origin, far below their 12 percent representation in the general population.

When Plana and his wife, also an actor, began planning a show about a Latino family, the producer's first instinct, he says, was ''to cast us as Jose the chef and Maria the waitress.'' The couple objected, and the producer agreed to let them write the roles as Ray the lawyer and Connie the college professor. But after they developed a pilot he told them, ''It's not Latino enough.'' Plana says, ''I hate to ask him to define what he thinks a Latino is.''

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Although blacks appear on television in numbers proportionate to their representation in American society, Ms. Simpson objects to the way they are cast. ''African-Americans on TV are always in comedies. There's a lot of buffoonery.'' She adds, ''When it comes to minorities on TV, I think the record is absolutely appalling.''

One way to increase ethnic diversity on the screen, critics say, is for networks to hire more minorities in positions of authority. Too often, says Ralph Farquhar, a black writer and producer for Big Ticket Television, programming ideas go through a ''great white male filter'' reflecting the predominance of white men in executive positions. ''That's not to say these people are motivated by ill will,'' he adds.

Gordon Berry, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, emphasizes the need to move beyond portrayals of Hispanics in gangs and Asian Americans in martial arts. In a culturally diverse nation, he says, ''Television is a marvelous vehicle for building intergroup understanding.''

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