Boston Globe

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

NOW derides the sorry status of women on TV

By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 5/23/2000
Boston Globe

Prime-time television remains a largely male-dominated arena, with many comedies in particular still built around ''sexist stereotypes,'' according to a study by the National Organization for Women.

The ''feminist prime-time report'' by NOW, the first such look at TV entertainment programs in the organization's 34-year history, also found ''sexual exploitation'' rife in the specials and made-for-TV movies that invariably surface during sweeps months. Among those at the ''bottom of the barrel,'' in NOW's view, were Fox's ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' and CBS's ''Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,'' about the JonBenet Ramsey case.

However, the study found significant bright spots in a spate of TV dramas. Such shows as CBS's ''Family Law,'' ABC's ''Once and Again,'' and NBC's ''ER'' were found to consistently present multidimensional female characters. ''The dramas seem to be doing well,'' NOW president Patricia Ireland said in an interview yesterday.

Nonetheless, the overall picture is so bleak, Ireland said, that NOW plans to step up pressure on advertisers to shift their spending from programs that depict women negatively and ''toward supporting the ones that are positive.'' Asked whether NOW might organize a boycott if talking fails, Ireland replied: ''Oh, yeah, we would contemplate that, definitely. But right now we just want to talk to people.''

The study involved teams of ''feminist viewers'' from NOW who looked at 82 prime-time programs during the February sweeps period, then graded the four largest broadcast networks on the basis of their programs' gender composition, violence, sexual exploitation, and violence. NBC won the highest grade, a B-plus; CBS followed with a C-plus, ABC got a C, and Fox - which the report labeled the ''network of shame'' - got a D-plus. (Ireland said future studies will include the WB and UPN networks).

As have numerous other studies, the report found that racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented on TV. Also not often seen on TV, says the report, are ''women of different body types'' than the prevailing slenderness, while lesbians and people with disabilities ''are virtually nonexistent.''

One of the most striking findings is that the medium that gave the world Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore has, according to NOW, become so inhospitable to women. ''There doesn't appear to be a strong place for women in comedy right now, except as the targets of sexual comments and advances,'' wrote the report's authors, adding that many comedies ''seem to focus on men's advances toward and humiliation of women.''

Among the programs in which women are either underrepresented or presented stereotypically, according to the report, are ABC's ''The Drew Carey Show,'' ''Norm,'' and ''Spin City,'' NBC's ''Just Shoot Me,'' and CBS's ''King of Queens.'' ''Norm'' and ''The Drew Carey Show'' were blasted for their ''mean-spiritedness, especially toward women and people of color.''

Ireland said she was struck by what she called ''the backlash shows,'' characterized by ''this kind of adolescent humor and bravado.''

The report drew skepticism from some network executives. The executives, who requested anonymity, questioned the methodology of the report and suggested that its findings were skewed by what they called NOW's ideology. One executive voiced exasperation at the constant criticism of the networks by advocacy groups. ''It's getting real wearisome,'' he said. ''It seems like these reports are popping up by the day.''

Among the NOW report's findings:

The rise of game shows like ABC's ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' has not resulted in more prominent roles for women. ''Even in the year 2000, the networks have not brought viewers a woman game show host,'' the report says.

Some of the shows ranked highest by NOW are also among the shows that draw the largest audiences, such as ''Family Law,'' ''ER,'' ''Providence,'' and ''Touched by an Angel.'' That means, Ireland said, that ''we're not asking the networks or programmers to do anything that's not going to be productive for their business.''

CBS was judged to have the poorest record on violence, principally due to action dramas like ''Walker, Texas Ranger'' and ''Martial Law.'' But CBS had the top-two ranked shows in the report, ''Family Law'' and ''Chicago Hope.''

The reaction from networks varied according to the grades they received. Spokesmen for Fox and ABC declined to comment, while at CBS, senior vice president for communications Chris Ender defended the network's depiction of women.

''We're very proud of the positive female role models we have in shows like `Judging Amy' and `Family Law,''' said Ender, adding that new CBS programs, starring Bette Midler and Christine Baranski, will feature strong female characters.

Ender called it ''a little unfair'' that NOW focused so much on the JonBenet Ramsey movie, noting that ''many of our Sunday movies have extremely positive portrayals of women, such as `Song from the Heart' with Amy Grant, `Anya's Bell' with Della Reese, and `Sarah, Plain and Tall' with Glenn Close.''

NBC senior vice president for publicity Shirley Powell said NBC is ''proud of the women role models we've created on our network,'' citing Dr. Sydney Hansen on `Providence,' Officer Faith Yokas on `Third Watch,' press secretary C.J. Gregg on `West Wing,' and the female doctors and nurses on ''ER.''

''NBC continues to portray women who are strong and smart - women who our viewers not only relate to but admire,'' Powell said.

This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 5/23/2000.

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