Highlights from the 2002 Feminist Primetime Report
The National Organization for Women (NOW) created the Watch Out, Listen Up! media activism campaign in 1999 with the mission of promoting positive and diverse portrayals of women and girls in the media. With its unbeatable reach into our homes and its influence on our attitudes, television is a key component of this campaign. This year the NOW Foundation is issuing the third annual Feminist Primetime Report, examining all of the primetime programs on the six broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN and WB.
What is television's role in our society? Is it simply entertainment, fantasy, an escape? Or should its potential to influence, persuade and inform be taken more seriously? We live with TV in our homes, every day, every night. For good or bad, it is a part of us. But are we a part of it? TV has the power to bring people together, to show viewers a full picture of our society. It also has the power to endorse destructive behavior, to reinforce the inequalities between women and men, and to ignore whole communities and sideline other groups of people.
In the third year of producing the Watch Out, Listen Up! report, our field analysts observed a continued lack of gender and racial diversity on TV. Outdated and negative stereotypes were common where diversity did exist. In our official tally, the six broadcast networks employed 134 more men than women in regular primetime roles. Programs told from a male point-of-view outnumbered those with a female point-of-view more than two-to-one.
According to our monitors, 57% of primetime programs last season depended on some level of violence or hostile behavior for entertainment value. Included in this are newsmagazines like Dateline, 20/20 and 48 Hours, which have become increasingly tabloid-ized, relying on salacious murder mysteries for content. And numerous comedies, reality shows and game shows spotlighted anger, back-stabbing and cruel intentions for fun and profit.
The gap between shows that portray female characters with dignity and respect, and programs that sexually exploit women appears to have widened. On one end of the spectrum the networks give us Judging Amy, Law & Order and The West Wing where women are smart, resourceful and in charge. Way on the other end of that spectrum, the networks offer Fear Factor, The Bachelor, WWE Smackdown! and The Drew Carey Show where women exist to be ogled, used and demeaned.
We've said it in previous reports, and we'll say it again the situation comedy is a sorry place for women on TV these days. They must be beautiful, thin and younger than their male counterparts, and willing to use their sexuality for laughs and titillation. In workplace comedies, women characters often shrug off sexually harassing behavior that would be unwelcome in the real world. In family comedies, women frequently play the sensible, hard-working wife/mommy to a lazy, immature husband. Sadly missing is a strong, high-profile comedic character in the tradition of I Love Lucy, Murphy Brown, Mary Tyler Moore or Roseanne. Do the characters of Rachel (from Friends), Grace (from Will & Grace) or Reba qualify to fill that role? Will the networks give the women on new shows such as Life with Bonnie or Less Than Perfect the right material to take on the mantle? Where are the powerful, funny women of color? Can Girlfriends carry that torch alone?
Field analysts commented on the low level of maturity in primetime TV and its overall lack of interest in social issues. Virtually no one on TV cares about what's going on in their communities or the larger world. TV is reluctant to accept older people, fat people, people with disabilities, blue collar workers. There's not much we at home can relate to very little time is spent on common concerns like paying the rent and bills, job hunting, health problems, birth control, childcare, car trouble, cooking dinner, cleaning, etc. But TV certainly does embrace the kinds of lifestyles and possessions ordinary people are supposed to covet.
So, if primetime television is a fantasy, whose fantasy is it? Every night viewers are presented with humor that relies on making fun of others; gross-out stunts like eating bugs and drinking blood; plenty of cops & robbers; groups of guys hanging out drinking beer and watching football; young, sexy women everywhere who fancy even the most awkward of men; hardly any older women unless they're somebody's mother; cool clothes, hot cars and huge apartments; hidden cameras catching people acting foolish; renegade "cowboys" who break the rules but come out on top; and an unusual number of superheroes, time travelers and space explorers. Could it be that broadcast television is lost in an adolescent boy's fantasyland?
The networks clearly feel little responsibility for what they put on the air, as long as it brings in advertising revenue. More and more, advertisers dictate what we see on TV. The corporations who manufacture products favor targeting viewers ages 18-34, so that's the type of content we all get. It doesn't matter that 64% of primetime viewers on an average night are 35 or older. If you are a middle-aged woman, a lesbian, a Latina, a woman with a disability, a woman of size, a low-income mom struggling to get by ... good luck finding programming that even pretends to reflect your life.
Unlike in our first Watch Out, Listen Up! report, we chose not to designate a "Network of Shame" or a "Primetime Leader" this year. Each network has its bright spots and its bleak spots in the portrayal of women, people of color and other marginalized groups. All six broadcast networks can do better much better in the areas of gender composition and diversity, violence, sexual exploitation and social responsibility. We must hold them accountable to all the viewers who ultimately make them rich.
Download the full report with fewer graphics for quicker download
Television's Truth and Lies | Talking Back: Who to Contact | Previous Reports