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Is TV diverse? Spin the numbers

As fall TV shows began to premire this week, the networks continued to scramble - sometimes at the last minute - to blunt charges that they are insensitive to minorities.

Hispanic groups have conducted a two-week boycott of major network shows that ends today, charging that Latinos are underrepresented on TV dramas and comedies.

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In this atmosphere of heightened sensitivity, NBC distributed a preview tape of its comedy "Will & Grace" that contained a line in which a character told her Salvadoran maid, "Hey, you're on the clock, tamale. Get to work." An AP story reported that Hispanics found the word "tamale" offensive in that context. When the episode aired Tuesday night, "tamale" had been replaced by "honey."

"Here's the network under siege for not having enough diversity in its minority characters, and the writers and producers aren't making the connection that maybe they shouldn't engage in this kind of thing," Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza told AP.

Earlier news reports pointed out that new entertainment shows planned for the fall included almost no minority characters, especially in major ongoing roles.

But when returning shows are factored into the mix, that lack of diversity apparently isn't so pronounced. That's the conclusion of a study released Tuesday by TN Media, an advertising agency.

It found that of the Big Four networks, two had higher percentages of black characters on their prime-time shows than the percentage of blacks in the general population (11.8 percent). On CBS, 18 percent of the characters were black; on ABC, 14 percent.

NBC had 8 percent black characters and Fox 7 percent. The average for the four networks was 12 percent. The two smaller networks did even better: UPN had 46 percent black characters and WB 23 percent.

"Everyone appealing to the same [white] audience hurts us all, viewers and advertisers alike," TN Media partner Steve Sternberg told Variety. But he did agree with network critics that minorities are badly underrepresented among those who are "producing and writing series and ... deciding what gets on the air."

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Will TV networks stick with their new shows this year, rather than dump them like antsy stock-market investors at the first sign of a dip in their numbers?

Producer Kevin Williamson (the "Scream" movies, WB's "Dawson's Creek") says he detects a new attitude this fall. "I'm very hopeful the networks are seeing some of their errors of the past where they just let great shows go away," he told Reuters.

Williamson has reason to worry. His new ABC series "Wasteland" landed in a 9 p.m. Thursday slot opposite NBC's comedy hit "Frasier."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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