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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

AUGUST 9, 1999:  When the NAACP announced its displeasure at the lack of diversity in the four major networks' fall seasons, it was only a matter of time before Latinos joined the fray. The National Council of La Raza's (NCLR -- a coalition of Latino groups) annual convention in Houston last week provided the perfect setting, and plans were announced for an organized brown-out. This bold announcement goes a step beyond the NAACP's commitment to set up shop in Hollywood to monitor the goings-on in the film and television industry and then consider the possibility of boycotts and even legal action. The NCLR members leading the charge promised that Hispanic leaders would convene in Washington, D.C., on September 12, during National Hispanic Heritage Week, and from there, a week-long brown-out would be launched. The brown-out means that Latinos would be asked to tune out the four major networks for a week in protest of the lack of Hispanic representation on television.

Now, I'm all for seeing brown faces in the media, but a brown-out? Just how would that work, and how would the success of the boycott be measured? From the beginning, this effort seems doomed, particularly since action is specifically directed at the networks. It seems to me that a better way to make the networks sit up and take notice would be to boycott network sponsors, since they are most likely to react to the potential loss of dollars, no matter what the reason, and will pull their support of any programming that displeases customers. In commercial television, the dollar rules.

So, while I wish NCLR luck with the boycott, I can't help but be more than a little skeptical. And how am I, a Latina whose job is to watch TV, to react? The simple response is to watch more cable television. That's fine with me. Cable television is where the most diverse programming can be found, though, alas, it's not free. I'm thinking of shows like HBO's Oz, and Showtime's Hoop Life and Linc's. HBO movies and specials have featured John Leguizamo, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, and Cicely Tyson, among others. Leguizamo, Cheadle, Rock, and Tyson are all Emmy Award nominees this year. Space does not permit me to talk at length about niche networks like BET, Univision, Telemundo, or programming by other cable networks that feature diverse casts. Lifetime's Any Day Now and the Sci Fi Channel's Sliders are two that come to mind.

The point here is that if the networks are wondering how to retrieve viewers who have turned to cable, and some of the most critically acclaimed and popular programs on cable feature multi-ethnic casts, or feature brown and black faces, why did the networks run in the opposite direction to completely blanch their programming?

As for "diversity," the term itself needs to be examined, because I suspect it does not mean the same thing to all groups of people. Throwing a couple of brown or black faces into a cast as an afterthought strikes me as disingenuous and somewhat revolting. You can add a little "spice" to the rice, but does it really change the flavor, or does it become that thing you pick out and leave on the side of your plate? Whether a boycott will remedy this type of shortsightedness remains to be seen.

Iron Men Update

The verdict is in: Iron Chef (Fri. & Sat., 9pm, Food Network) is one of the most bizarrely entertaining programs to see on TV. I wrote at length about the Japanese import a few columns ago, based on interviews, background information, and conjecture. But even I couldn't imagine just how strange, funny, and oh-so-very-Japanese the cooking show is. Since watching four episodes, or "battles" -- Broccoli Battle, Red Snapper Battle, Rice Battle, and Guinea Hen Battle -- and chatting with El Papi Chulo, as well as one reader, about the program, here are some post-viewing comments.

Iron Chef's master of ceremonies Kaga Takeshi

The great thing about Iron Chef is that you don't have to be a foodie to enjoy it. Frenetic camera work and a sense of pomp that borders on the absurd keep El Chulo interested, so much so that he gets miffed when the show breaks from routine and does not ceremoniously present all the Iron Chefs on their rising platforms accompanied by smoke and music. Last week's episode not only presented the French Iron Chef to the challenger alone, but also gave the chefs the added challenge of presenting the theme food (guinea hen) on Wedgwood China (ooh, ahh!).

My only complaint with the show is that the guest judges, typically Japanese actors and actresses, babble constantly, presumably in an effort to take the edge off the tension in the cooking arena. And believe me, the tension is very real. Pride, honor, and reputations are on the line in each of the battles. In last week's Guinea Hen Battle, the French Iron Chef nearly collapsed into tearful relief upon being named the victor.

Thankfully, Iron Chef is dubbed into English. A friend in the Bay Area said that the version she sees (via Hawaii) has dropped the dubbing, making it more difficult to follow. It's doubtful that the Food Network will follow suit, unless it's really looking to kill the campy food show. As it is, it could use a little more promotional help. The network did little to fully prepare viewers for what Iron Chef is, so whether it's gained an audience is unclear. My wish would be that the network pare away some time from the overexposed Emeril Lagasse, and give at least one more time slot to Iron Chef. Until then, El Chulo and I will continue to map our Friday evenings around Iron Chef, eagerly waiting for the moment in the opening credits when Iron Chef host Kaga Takeshi takes a salacious bite out of a yellow bell pepper, followed by a knowing, euphoric smile to the camera. Why does he do that? El Chulo asked me the first time. Who knows, but it sure is a hoot to watch.

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