Critical Thoughts on the Racial Composition of Some Popular TV, Movies, Radio in LA

Posted on June 27, 2012 by

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As I’ve spent more time with my girlfriend the past few months, I’ve been re-immersed back into popular TV and radio.

On the radio, its been 102.7 KIIS-FM and the ever-ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest in the mornings.

NBC has been the main supplier of my popular TV consumption.  I watch the local news sometimes. Of the popular TV shows, I’ve more consistently watched America’s Got Talent, Today, Dateline NBC, and American Ninja Warrior. The only other TV shows I watched were on Fox TV; I watched some of Glee and American Idol.

As for sports, I am watching coverage of the US Olympic trials for all sports from track, to diving, to swimming.

At the movies on the big screen, I’ve watched Madagascar, the Lorax, Act of Valor, Hunger Games.

In my adult life, I can’t say I’ve ever been in touch with much of popular culture, unless it was either sports-related and/or Spanish language/Filipino TV.  It hasn’t been a conscious, outright dismissal and disregard for all things pop culture.  I’d simply occupied a lot of my time with reading, learning, and the internet.

I think its important though to engage in what tends to be popular because it does yield insight into what people do like to watch and listen to.  I even find that I’m hooked into these productions.

Trying to maintain my critical eye, I’ve sought out political and critical documentaries on Netflix.  I recently watched Ethos (2011).  In that film, one media critic pointed out that a lot of the shows, mass media, and advertisements produced were based on Freudian psychology and tapping into human desire;  i.e. trying to titillate viewers/consumers’ desires rather than needs.

In my latest binge of each of these mediums, my observations (namely anecdotal, meaning I only catch what I see and haven’t really done any systematic analysis):

On the Radio

102.7 KIIS FM Morning with Ryan Seacrest

Back in the day, the early to mid 1990s my dad would tune into 102.7 KIIS FM and we’d listen to Rick Dees with Ellen K.  Popular songs and some commentary — don’t remember much about what Dees said, just his voice.

Today, 2012, the show is hosted by Ryan Seacrest and the apparently ageless Ellen K. A lot of the popular songs of the moment over and over, sprinkled with a few iconic ones from Dr. Dre’s California Love to Baby Got Back.  I do like the time spent on shout-outs just as means of identifying their audiences;  it’s mostly people in middle and high school usually in “Latino neighborhoods.”

The things they talk about are typical celebrity fluff.  Celebrity fluff that is usually about white folk, with black people providing the background music, though increasingly were hearing the Katie Perrys and Kelly Clarksons make a resurgence.  Tearing up the radio is that “I just met you” song.   I wasn’t surprised when they hyped up the Los Angeles Kings hockey team’s Stanley Cup win one Monday morning.

But I thought they might make mention of the Manny Pacquiao-Michael Bradley fight.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.

On TV

Glee

Awestruck at the diversity of the show, and explorations of the identity of gay folk.  Occasionally like the songs.

But still the same racialized hegemony we’ve faced in Hollywood.  No real “leading” characters of color, always “supporting.”

American Idol

The past season, Jessica Sanchez.

Filipino-Mexican-American from Chula Vista finished in 2nd place with the voice of a black diva.

Vs.

Some white guy who kinda looked like Mark Zuckerberg and sounded kinda like Jack Johnson.

Very different styles, but the white guy probably was always going to win.

How’d I know?

Probably the sex appeal factor for the teenage girl demographic, he was older.

However, other than the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, it’s like Jessica Sanchez didn’t exist after that white guy won.

America’s Got Talent

I like the early rounds of the show.  A diverse amount of talents are shown here.   A quirky black TV show host, tempered by three white judges:  Howard Stern, Sharon Osbourne, the bald white guy.

Only complaint I had during the first round was when they dealt with an Asian comedian.  The Asian comedian was doing impressions;  the reactions as televised:  we couldn’t understand him, haha haha.  The whole joke was that his impression was unintelligible.

Currently, they are in Las Vegas, the semi-finals of their competition.  I’m not liking how they basically play God in the competition, making judgments.  Three fairly liberal white folks, a good thing for the most part, but still with preferences for certain things that “make” a “star.”  The definition of “star” being partly attached to the current racially hegemonized mass media.

In the last round I watched, they cut three acts without even giving them the chance to perform.  This despite telling them that they were going to Las Vegas:  one was a bald black guy who sounded OK, another some Arab-ish guys who did this balancing act, and an Asian rock band girl group.  Why even allow them come to Vegas in the first place?

American Ninja

This show I’ve been paying attention to since it came on.

1 White host, a somewhat white-washed Puerto Rican, and an Asian-American lady as the sideline reporter.  I look at the Asian-American lady and think, “of course.”

Wonder what the reaction would be if it were two Asian-American men and a blonde as the sideline reporter.

There are 30 competitors trying to get through an obstacle course from each region.  They can’t cover all of them and some might be boring than others.  I’m sympathetic to all of them, but I notice which athletes they focus on:  it’s heavily the white athletes and a handful of brown and black athletes.  In fairness, what I’ve watched to this point has been regional competitions. With the white athletes, they spend a bunch of time, profiling them.  They talk about all the problems they go through.  I snicker when I think about their idea of problems juxtaposed against my Khmer Rouge surviving friends

One additional thing I notice is that while the competitors are primarily white, those in the audience are black and brown.

In the latest episode, covering the Southeast Division, I notice that there are a lot more athletes of color, including two professional athletes.  The commentary surrounding the professional athletes, the black guys, one a Harlem Globetrotter, the other an NFL player, is about their statures — very tall, agile, and athletic which gives them an advantage over the other competitors.

Local News on NBC in LA

Usually after a hard-day’s work swallowing infotainment, hungering for stories about minorities, I watch bits of the local news.

In juxtaposition to Dateline NBC or America’s Got Talent, it’s usually about people of color in conflict, animal escapes.  The past week I remember a story about some freeway road rage.

Dateline NBC

Seems to have been turned into some kind of murder mystery show, usually about white people, failed marriages that end in murder in a husband’s drive to make some kind of money. In the three episodes I’ve watched in the last few weeks, one was about a Kindergarten Teacher getting killed for her insurance policy;  another was about some marriage falling apart.

Based on the racial composition of the show’s subjects, it appears that the only stories the viewing public seem to care about are stories about white people.

I think about the joke made by the late Patrice O’Neal about Natallee Holloway vs. the Peruvian woman, Stephany Flores Ramirez, also attacked by Joran Van der Sloot, but actually before her incident.

This extreme focus on white folk seems to be legitimated by having a bi-racial host Lester Holt;  having him being all “ethnic” and everything means they can just focus on talking about stuff concerning only white people.  NBC is usually one of the more race-conscious TV stations and I must admit that their stories are intriguing, but if race wasn’t such a big deal, why not have stories about families of color?

Case in point:  The Lost in Suburbia show that is serving as Dateline’s topic right now on this June Sunday night is about 5 formerly middle-class families talking the realities nowadays

I think this show just serves a perception that the middle-class is all white people and the problems as they and the Dateline NBC producers define it.  Despite the prediction that over 50% of the US population will be non-white, this misses just about every other racial category.

Olympics Trials Coverage 2012

So far I’ve watched 2 days of Track and Field Trials and one of the Diving Trials, this past Saturday and Sunday.

There are so many events in Track and Field.  As I was watch the 2nd Day of Track trials, someone I was watching it with pointed out the dominance of black people in the sprinting events, such as the 100 M and 400 M.

In NBC commercials for the Olympics, I notice that there’s very little promotion for Track & Field.  Inversely, I know why the gymnastics girls and events like swimming, diving, were so heavily promoted:  They’re the sports with the white people.  Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, some gymnast girls.

This Monday morning on the Today Show following those Track & Field Olympic Trials, they have done segments on swimming and US women’s soccer.

They have given very little updates on Track & Field on the 4 Hours of the Today Show.  We don’t know that Justin Gatlin, the 2004 winner is back, or that Tyson Gay, a 9.6 sprinter is also back to try and win back the spotlight that Usain Bolt had.  We didn’t even hear about Ashton Eaton, the bi-racial guy who over the weekend had just set the world record in the Decathlon.

The only update they gave about Track & Field on the Today Show was a brief sentence about Lolo Jones, the pretty bi-racial virgin who finished a close third in her event to just barely make the team.  They said that she made the team despite some injuries.

Trying to reconcile that micro-second of coverage on the Today show with what was shown, I remembered some other moments in the games: the chocolate-colored Carmelita Jeter won her heat convincingly, is a favorite to win the 100M and close to reaching Flo Jo’s world record.  I remembered that someone who will be competing in the 2012 Olympics, a 100 M sprinter from USC named Ryan Bailey, was actually shot before making his return.  They mentioned all this during the broadcast, but these are mentioned only once and apparently not worth repeating for the Today Show.

I learned for the first time watching these Olympic Track Trials that there is an Asian-American olympian.  His name is Bryan Clay.  I didn’t find that he’d actually won the Olympics before.  The only thing NBC said about him was that he didn’t make the team.  It was through me parusing his Wikipedia entry that I found out he already had won a Silver Medal and Gold Medal from Athens, the 2004 Olympics and Beijing, the 2008 Olympics respectively.  A two-time medalist.

But they’ll focus on hyping up the nice white American boy Ryan Lochte.

Or the woman’s soccer team.

If race isn’t a factor, why not do stories and promotions that hype up those track athletes as much?

This lack of coverage of these athletes in promotions and in the network’s main “news” show just feeds the impression that black athletes are just “naturally inclined” towards running and jumping, but also that there isn’t much story or history to uncover.  They aren’t “interesting” as defined by its production team.

One thing I noticed was that the track athletes had to literally out their families onto the track for the reporters to say anything about their mothers, fathers, or children.  The interviews are quick, and usually given immediately after the race when they’re out of breath, which is strange because the whole meet as we watch is edited and tape-delayed.

When I watched the swimming trials; it was prime-time television.  The interviews didn’t seem to be immediately after the race, giving the athletes time to respond.

The only promos in which they show any individual of color and their stories is a fast superficial promo showing off all the athletes.

So far, diversity, or some kind of racial and ethnic democracy is nothing but an illusion.

What’s the big deal behind me noticing all of this?

We make all of our decisions based on how we understand things.  Categories are convenient ways to package an understanding of things.  People use categories to comprehend the world.  We use categories to carry associations.  We use categories to carry the order of things.  For example, the category of “Black” as defined by me carries with it black people, a black Crayola crayon, Michael Jordan, etc. The category of Black carries an infinite amount of associations for me.  Or the category of my high school Class of 2002 carries associations to the class rankings:  Some kids with the 4.7 GPAs went on to Harvard, Cal Tech, Stanford.  Me and my 3.1 carrying butt took me to the world of “Banana Worms.”

Race and ethnicity are categories we use to identify each other in official as well as informal culture.  The Census uses it, and people talk about it all the time whether its for jokes or giving their opinions on people.  Race and ethnicity along with class are the only categories we can immediately see in people, and then bring our own associations, which then influence our actions towards those people.

Someone on a message board I frequent asked, “when are people going to stop looking at the racial implications of everything?”

I responded, “when there is a racial and ethnic democracy in our institutions.”  Racial and ethnic democracy meaning any member from any race and ethnicity has the ability to affect change.

As it is, technically the field is open, some strings of opportunity are around for individuals, but at the moment, there appear to be cultural barriers.  American Popular culture seems anxious to “show” diversity, but not so much “live” it by engaging us fully in the stories of folks of color.  If there are any associated adjectives attached to popular culture’s perception of people of color, meaning, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Arabics, Indians, Pacific Islanders, it seems to be in the vein of “temporary, supporting, peripheral, secondary.”  We aren’t the main event, the home team.  Our stories, our struggles, the full range of our emotional lives still need to be told.