Hispanic characters received only 3 percent of screen time in fall 2002 programs on the six major networks, according to the study released Tuesday by the University of California, Los Angeles. Hispanics make up 13.5 percent of the U.S. population.
Whites received 81 percent of screen time and blacks 15 percent, the study said — both disproportionate to their population.
"There's no question that the last place you'd know Latinos are the largest minority is by watching television," said Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza advocacy group in Washington.
"It's a measure of how unreflective prime-time television is of what's really going on in America and what America looks like," she said.
The network lineups announced for fall 2003 reflect scant improvement, said Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition in Los Angeles.
Two Hispanic-themed sitcoms, "The Ortegas" and "Luis," are set to debut, joining the successful "George Lopez." But other shows like "Kingpin" and "Greetings From Tucson" are off the air.
Lopez's show begins its third season this fall on ABC, which said it's committed to mirroring the diversity of the American public.
"We're proud of what the show represents to millions of our viewers," said ABC spokesman Kevin Brockman. "Audiences have embraced this unique take on family life because it's honest, it's relatable and it's funny."
Spanish-language television doesn't make up for Hispanics' exclusion from the dominant networks, Nogales said. "America doesn't know who its neighbors are. We live among everybody else," he said.
Latino groups, which have joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other advocacy groups in seeking TV diversity, must get more from networks or look to advertisers to increase the pressure, he said.
Last week, the Census Bureau announced that the Hispanic population grew at nearly four times the rate for the national population in the past two years, cementing its position as the nation's biggest minority group.
And Hispanic buying power is expected to balloon to $926.1 billion in 2007, up from about $580 billion in 2002, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. That far exceeds the buying power growth of overall non-Hispanic consumers.
Other findings of the study, titled "Prime Time in Black and White," show little progress toward diversity, according to Darnell Hunt, the principal study author and director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
White characters received 81 percent of screen time, while non-Hispanic whites make up about 70 percent of the population. Black characters got about 15 percent of screen time, while the ethnic group represents 12.7 percent of the population, according to the second-year findings of the five-year study.
But programs designed to reach black viewers tend to be "relegated to a particular night or two, and often concentrated on one of the smaller networks, if at all," Hunt noted in a statement.
Asians held only 1 percent of screen time. American Indians were deemed "invisible."
The research was based on a content analysis of 234 episodes of 85 situation comedies and dramas airing on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB during three weeks in October and November 2002.
NBC, which has scheduled series starring black performers Whoopi Goldberg and Tracy Morgan for next season, said an analysis of main, recurring characters in its programs tells a different story.
"NBC has achieved over 30 percent diversity in freshman prime-time series regulars for the past three seasons," said Michael Jack, head of diversity for NBC. "This fall, that number increases to 37 percent. We're proud of our progress but acknowledge that more needs to be accomplished."