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The Globe and Mail

Is Obama’s America reflected on U.S. TV? Don’t even go there

After indulging in some smirking about Diane Sawyer appearing ossified, and some schadenfreude about Karl Rove in denial on election night, it's time to sober up and consider that portion of the USA who re-elected Barack Obama. Do we know these people? Do we see them on the mainstream American TV that takes up about 90 per cent of what is seen on TV in Canada and aired around the world?

If we accept that what led Obama to victory was largely a loose affiliation of blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, gays, lesbians and women concerned about the issues of abortion and contraception, then the answer is no – this diverse America is not seen prominently on network TV.

There isn't a single show on the four big U.S. networks that focuses on a black family. Or a Hispanic family. Or an Asian-American family. Diversity on network TV is mainly a matter of background characters and, sometimes, diversity morphs into racial stereotyping – it can be hard to watch the CBS sitcom Two Broke Girls without cringing at the ridicule aimed by the two white waitresses at their Asian-American restaurant boss Han. Of course, in some areas, network TV has become considerably more diverse. There are far more gay and lesbian characters than there used to be. And family units look a lot different than before: Modern Family features gay and Latino characters and both The New Normal and Ben and Kate feature family units that are far from the traditional white-mom-and-dad-with-two-cute-kids model.

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But the only network show that can actually stand as a true reflection of diversity is Glee. Its high school is peopled with gay, lesbian, black, white, Asian, Hispanic and disabled characters. What happens on Glee, really, is that this diverse group comes together in the Glee Club and that club could stand as a paradigm for the America that Obama references when he says, "We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states."

The thing is, asking if there are reflections of diversity on U.S. TV is asking the wrong question. Commercial television is under no obligation to do anything more than deliver eyeballs to advertisers. No network is required to develop a drama or comedy that focuses on a black family unit. Residents of Seattle can sneer at the depiction of local community as it is seen on the Seattle-set Grey's Anatomy, but ABC is not obligated to be realistic. It is airing an escapist fiction mainly aimed at white, middle-class women viewers who buy the stuff advertised on the show.

What's happened is that the TV landscape has splintered. A sitcom about a black family can be found on cable. There are several cable channels aimed specifically at Hispanic-Americans. There are channels aimed at gays and lesbians. It would be hard to find a minority group that doesn't have its own specialty channel.

Just as there are channels for all sides of the political debate – Fox for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals – there is entertainment, escapist TV for everyone. And in fact what Barack Obama himself watches on TV tends to reflect the kind of person he is. He watches Homeland on Showtime and, on an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he gave a shout-out to the comedy show Key & Peele, which airs on Comedy Central.

To find the coalition that helped re-elect Obama, one has to surf across dozens of channels and shows. Glee is the exception that proves the rule. The diversity is not there on the dramas and comedies ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox produces. Maybe it can be seen best in reality shows that feature real people, not characters created and approved by networks in search of ad dollars.

Maybe the vast differences between channels and their audiences is a reflection of the deep divides in the United States today. There was a time when Oprah Winfrey asked the cast of Friends, at its height of popularity, "Why don't you have any black friends?" Now the question seems irrelevant. (In 1996, when Winfrey asked the question, Friends was 111th out of 140 prime-time network shows in the Nielsen ratings for black households. So maybe the question was irrelevant even then.)

I have no idea if all that division is a good thing for U.S. popular culture or not. But given that the Americans who re-elected Obama pay attention to such diverse media and entertainment, it's remarkable he was able to get his message to them all.

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Airing Monday night

Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (TMN, 8 p.m.) is not so much an "untold" history as it is Stone's alternative version of events from the Second World War until recent times. It is highly eccentric, sometimes obscure and Stone's own voice-over narrative doesn't help. At times he attempts to create drama and intrigue where none exists. Some of his interpretations will come as no surprise to those who haven't swallowed wholesale the official U.S. version of the history of the last few decades. For instance, he puts emphasis on the Soviet Union's role in defeating Germany in the Second World War. In that he speaks the truth, but one that is hardly "untold."

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