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TV Diversity Drives African American Youth to Drink
June 27 2003
Trevor Butterworth
Can USA Today back up its controversial charge?

In a week when the Supreme Court took on race as a factor in college admissions, USA Today decided to tackle a hitherto unknown aspect of diversity - the "hidden costs" of increasing numbers of minorities on primetime TV.

According to the paper, the problem began in 1999, when the networks agreed to hire more minority actors, directors and writers after the NAACP complained that primetime television was "a virtual whitewash". As primetime opened its doors to more and more black actors, it gained more black viewers. So far, so good, you might think.

But now, a new study argues that African American teens are disproportionately targeted with alcohol advertising in these prime time shows, and the USA Today article concludes that diversity must take some of the blame. Attracted to shows with more black actors, African American teens see more ads for alcohol, and so are at greater risk of under-age drinking.

This is a heavy responsibility to throw on the hard won gains of black actors and producers. But it should come as some relief to find that these "hidden costs" rest on assumptions that are either unproven or clearly wrong. The new study - from Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) - actually provides no information that might link trends in television viewing by black youth with the advertising that is supposedly aimed at them.

If you really wanted to prove that increasing diversity on primetime TV is putting African American youth at greater risk of abusing alcohol, you would need to answer the following questions:

Are African-American youth watching more television than in 1999, and are the shows that they watch the ones to which black actors or producers contribute? Many of the most popular shows among black youth, such as The Simpsons and Wonderful World of Disney, are also the most popular among white youth. In fact, many are also popular with white and black adults.

Are young African-American viewers exposed to more alcohol advertising today than in 1999? The CAMY study reports only that the 15 programs currently most popular with black youth all contain at least one alcohol ad. We dont know how many ads they contain individually or collectively, or whether this number has increased recently. Nor do we know how this compares to the number of alcohol ads in other prime time shows.

Are African-American youth more likely to use alcohol than their white peers? The authoritative National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), which the CAMY study cites, shows that African American youth were almost 40 percent less likely than white youth to have used alcohol in the past month. In fact, under-age drinking among African Americans has declined by 14 percent since 1998 - a year before the networks' agreement with the NAACP.

Finally, are black youth increasingly consuming the products that are advertised most heavily? By far the biggest spender on these shows is Heineken beer. Has Heineken's popularity recently increased among young African-American adults?

In short, the USA Today story (and the study on which it is based) provide no information on trends in alcohol consumption, prime time programming, and viewing habits that would warrant the headline: "Blacks pay price for better TV roles." Surely, after years of struggling to make it onto prime time television, black actors deserve a break.



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