Stop me if you've heard this one before: A Latino goes to an audition but doesn't get the job because he's too ethnic. For actor Esai Morales, this meant missing out on the role of a Latino FBI agent because it was apparently too much of a stretch for a Latino to play a Latino, according to Felix R. Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Sanchez was among several panelists addressing The New Business of Show Business: Developing Diversity in Television Programming at the University of Texas on Monday. (The recent snowstorm in New York kept Morales from appearing at the panel as originally advertised.)
The NHFA launched in 1997 by Morales, along with fellow actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, and Sanchez (a Washington, D.C.-based attorney) was "created to advance the presence of Latinos in the media, telecommunications, and entertainment industries." It concentrates on "increasing access for Hispanic artists and professionals while fostering the emergence of new Hispanic talent." The latter is done through scholarships and by expanding career opportunities for existing talent working in the entertainment and performing arts.
The Morales experience Sanchez shared was with Breach, a TV movie about Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole working for 15 years for the former Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation before he was charged and convicted of treason in 2001. Richard Garcia, another FBI agent responsible for helping bring Hanssen down, was the role Morales read for when Ruben Santiago-Hudson dropped out because of a scheduling conflict. Instead of casting another Latino, producers went with a composite of several FBI agents named Rich Garces. Later, Morales was told the producers wanted "a more conventional boss-looking guy," according to a Washington Post article published in December of last year. Gary Cole was cast as Garces. Breach is currently filming in D.C.
"It's rare to find a heroic Latino role," Morales said in the Washington Post article. "He's one of the characters you want representing your people."
In the meantime, those who critique the Latino presence on TV and film shake their heads in amazement.
"It does matter," said Federico Subervi, an Austin-based media consultant who appeared on the panel, reacting to the Morales story and to images of Latinos on TV in general. "This year was the first year there was a Latino balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Dora from Dora the Explorer). "Think about it. What does a character's presence or absence [on TV] say to me? What does it say to others about me or my ethnic group?"
While panelists generally agreed that there have been positive changes in the big picture with kudos offered to ABC for making the most obvious strides when something like the Breach story is told, it feels like going back to square one.
And it's not just a matter of creating starring roles for Latino actors. Many existing opportunities go unused. Subervi pointed to procedural dramas, like the CSI (CBS) and Law & Order (NBC) franchises. Set in cities where the Latino presence is high (New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles), why is it so untenable to believe that TV viewers would accept a Latino in a leading role, in addition to supporting roles?
Reporting on who's watching TV and when is the job of Nielsen Media Research, where panelist Doug Darfield is a senior vice president. Nielsen has come under fire during the past two years by organizations charging that its numbers are flawed due to dated methodology. If its numbers were correct, these organizations argue, it would show that more, not less, programming about Latinos (and other ethnic groups) is not only desirable, but necessary.
In the past, Darfield explained, a 33 share in primetime was great (a share being the percentage of all those tuned into TV at a given moment). But that standard of success was developed when there were only three big networks. The advent of cable and especially rapidly emerging new technologies have a direct impact on how the Nielsen rating will work in the future.
"Any person who can say what the landscape will be like in even the next five years is overconfident," Darfield said.
Although the media landscape is in flux, "the time is now, the opportunity is now," Sanchez said to the mostly student audience. He suggested, why not have a hand in shaping the industry instead of complaining about it?
As always, stay tuned.