Latino TV Roles Are Getting More Stereotypical, According to This Columbia University Report

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It’s no secret that Latinos have grown into one of the largest and most influential demographic groups in the United States. With 17.4% of the total U.S. population, and an even larger share of younger subgroups, Latinos have been aggressively courted by political parties and marketing strategists vying to tap into our $1.5 trillion buying power. But while we’ve seen some concrete improvements regarding access, representation, and opportunity for Latinos in US media, there’s still an undeniable lag in the ability of big media institutions to catch up to demographic reality.

Filmmaker and Columbia University Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner has appropriately called this phenomenon the “Latino Disconnect,” and in a report from Columbia’s Media and Idea Lab, co-authored with Chelsea Abbas, Negrón-Muntaner takes a long hard look at how – if at all, this panorama has been improving for Latinos in the United States. Negrón-Muntaner was particularly interested in how a new, monopolistic media landscape characterized by massive mergers between cable, telecom, and content providers, has affected Latinos over a number of different categories.

By far the most towering example of this new age of media monopoly is the controversial 2011 Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, which brought together the nation’s largest telecom and internet service provider with a massive television network and top Hollywood movie studio. Three years later, Comcast tried to take their plan for dominance a step further by proposing a merger with the nation’s second largest telecom provider, Time Warner Cable – a plan that was jettisoned in large part thanks to Latino activism on both a political and grassroots level.

Nevertheless, these are just two examples of a growing tendency that has seen mergers of other giants like Verizon and AOL, or AT&T and DirecTV. Given that many of these mergers disproportionately affect the largest Latino urban centers, and that Latinos actually over-index in media consumption despite being underserved in internet access, Negrón-Muntaner decided to take a long hard look at how these mergers are deepening the disconnect. The findings, as you can imagine, are disheartening.

Taking data from three years before and three years after the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, Negrón-Muntaner and her research team published their findings in “The Latino Disconnect: Latinos in the Age of Media Mergers.” Over 40 pages, the report identifies some of the key problems that characterize this disconnect, while making suggestions for a more equitable and representative media landscape moving forward.

Here are some highlights from the report.

Diversity on Television Is Worse Than We Think

There are many different ways to define diversity, but the report found that there were no significant increases in diversity behind-the-camera at NBCUniversal between 2008-2014, and in many cases Latino representation went down. According to their finding, Latinos comprised less than 7% of behind-the-camera talent across the top 10 shows, news, and film. To boot there were precisely zero Latinos involved in the company’s highest-level executive decision making. Across all major companies only 1.4% of CEOs and 7.7% of board members are Latinos.

But There Are Definitely More Latino Roles On TV, Right?

No doubt, but “The Latino Disconnect” goes a step further than raw numbers to show that Latino roles defined as “stereotypical” – think maids, cops, gang bangers, drug addicts – actually increased from 34.1% to 52.5% between the 2008-2009 and 2014-15 seasons. The report similarly found a decrease in Latino NBC News producers from 13 to 8, while the number of anchors dropped from 3 to 2.

Things Got Worse at NBC News As Well

Between 2012-2014, 3% of all NBC Nightly News stories were Latino-themed, of which 64% focused on illegal immigration and crime. Communism came in third, with Cold War-style boogeyman talk of Cuba and Venezuela dominating international coverage. With regards to its perpetuation of stereotypes, the report cited a May 5, 2014 “Cinco de Mayo” segment on MSNBC’s Way Too Early that had reporter Louis Burgdorf donning a sombrero, drinking tequila, and shaking maracas as he wandered around the newsroom – a segment that sparked outcry that went as high as the U.S. congress.

But Streaming’s Better Though, No Question About That

Not so fast. Of course, anyone who’s been keeping up on these reports knows that Hulu was recently dubbed the most diverse digital content creator in the United States, and “The Latino Disconnect” similarly corroborated that they had the least stereotypical representation of Latinos.

Nevertheless, the report revealed that this title is entirely predicated on one show: East Los High. Take away that particular show and Latino representation on Hulu originals goes down to 0% of leads and behind-the-camera talent. Netflix fared a little better than a hypothetical East Los-free Hulu, with Latinos making up 8.1% of actors and 3.6% behind-the-camera talent. 49% of their Latino roles were defined as “stereotypical.”

Latinos Have A Voice

Thanks to Latino advocacy, the initial terms of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger included a Memorandum of Understanding that required the new mega-corporation to actively diversify their workforce and corporate governance, while dedicating a larger portion of their philanthropical endeavors to Latino causes. Unfortunately, despite some concrete gains, many felt that Comcast-NBCUniversal never fully honored the agreement.

The backlash came a few years letter when yet another merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable was jettisoned thanks primarily to Latino activism. Thanks in large part to the efforts of congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Latino advocates were so influential in the proceedings that the The Washington Post went so far as to say that Latinos held “the key to the Comcast merger.”