If You're Looking For A Little Diversity On Television, Try HGTV

Apr 13, 2011
Originally published on April 13, 2011 9:01 am

Neda Ulaby reports on Wednesday's Morning Edition that there's a surprising channel where you can see Latino, Asian, or African-American people, as well as gays and lesbians, in significantly larger numbers than in much of the rest of broadcast and cable television.

That channel is HGTV — from Home And Garden Television — which features people of color as hosts and homeowners, as well as designers and retailers. Neda considers an episode of House Hunters, for instance, that featured a black couple where one was a tech consultant and one was a government nuclear inspector. The president of HGTV makes clear that the diversity of participants — not only the homeowners, but the design professionals and other consultants — is entirely intentional, and has resulted in an overall increase in its audience and an even bigger increase in its minority audiences.

It's easy to write off inexpensive basic-cable shows as largely time-swallowing placeholders, but according to some of the folks quoted in Neda's story, there can be big payoffs from remembering to make them a little bit more inclusive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Every so often, a new study seems to show how terrible television is when it comes to reflecting national demographics. Latinos make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, but they're only 3 percent of characters on TV. African-Americans tend to get stuck playing cops or crooks.

NPR's Neda Ulaby says there is a channel that reliably shows a spectrum of educated, professional minorities. And it may not be what you expect.

(Soundbite of an HGTV show)

Unidentified Woman #1: The room that we'd like to have redesigned is our living room-slash-dining room.

Unidentified Man #1: It's our central hub.

NEDA ULABY: HGTV - Home and Garden Television - brims with designers, Realtors, home buyers and hosts who are Latino, Asian or African-American.

(Soundbite of TV show, "House Hunters")

Unidentified Woman #2: The paint color is horrible.

Unidentified Man #2: Looks again like there's quite a bit of damage in here.

Unidentified Woman #2: Where are the doors?

ULABY: This episode of "House Hunters" just featured a black couple - a tech consultant and a government nuclear inspector - looking at listings in Atlanta. It's the sort of couple rarely glimpsed on network television, says professor Darnell Hunt.

Professor DARNELL HUNT (Sociologist, UCLA): I've watched HGTV for many, many years. I'm one of those home-improvement junkies.

ULABY: He's also a sociologist who studies minorities in the media.

Prof. HUNT: Quite a few of their shows do have hosts who are people of color. You see class differences. You get to see racial and ethnic differences. You see gay and lesbian couples.

ULABY: Like on the show "House Hunters International."

(Soundbite of TV show, "House Hunters International")

Ms. SUZANNE WHANG (Host): Quentin and Mike are ready to leave Las Vegas and head south of the border.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: Just steps to the beach...

ULABY: HGTV really started paying attention to its diversity about five years ago, says the channel's president, Jim Samples, because of an intern project.

Mr. JIM SAMPLES (President, HGTV Channel): We were working with a group of students, actually, from the University of Tennessee, and we asked for them to do an audit of our air.

ULABY: So the interns picked a period of time...

Mr. SAMPLES: And looked at every minute of air: the programming, promotion, everything - just to get a feel for OK, are we reflective of the diversity of the country?

ULABY: The answer was it could do better. So HGTV made it more of a priority. And since then, Samples says, HGTV's audience increased 20 percent overall in prime time.

Mr. SAMPLES: But among our African-American audience, for example, we're up by 50 percent.

ULABY: Five-zero?

Mr. SAMPLES: Yes.

ULABY: HGTV has become one of the most popular cable channels for the home-owning, African-American demographic. It's got higher-than-average viewership among upscale Latino audiences, too. That doesn't surprise Dana Mastro one bit. She's an academic who studies Latino representation on TV.

Professor DANA MASTRO (Department of Communication, University of Arizona): Well, I mean, you're talking about underserved viewing communities here.

ULABY: Communities used to seeing Latinos stereotyped as sexpots, detectives or dealers. HGTV shows try to reflect the country's actual makeup.

(Soundbite of an HGTV show)

KAHI: Hey, Cherise.

CHERISE: Hey, Kahi.

ULABY: And perhaps even more importantly, Mastro says, HGTV shows minorities as tastemakers, arbiters, decision-makers.

(Soundbite of an HGTV show)

Unidentified Man #4: Of course, you have - dishwasher and your fridge are white.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah. I was really hoping for stainless steel, maybe, in the kitchen. So...

(Soundbite of an HGTV show)

ULABY: That's the irony, says Dana Mastro. In spite of all this great diversity on HGTV, everybody ends up wanting exactly the same things.

Prof. MASTRO: Everybody does want stainless steel - granite and stainless steel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of an HGTV show)

Unidentified Woman #4: I want to do a stainless steel backsplash in this space.

Unidentified Man #6: My favorite part is the stainless steel backsplash.

Unidentified Woman #5: Love it.

Unidentified Man #6: Wow.

Unidentified Woman #4: That integrated look just looks...

Unidentified Woman #5: Isn't it?

Unidentified Woman #4: ...spectacular.

ULABY: That integrated look, indeed.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.