For reflecting nation's diversity, you can't beat cable

July 08, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- It was not one of the bigger press conferences here on the fall TV preview tour. But it held one of those moments where hundreds of disparate facts and developments in the revolution that television is going through suddenly froze in a kind of perfect alignment and led to an inescapable conclusion: Cable TV is going to grind the networks to dust because it is really starting to reflect our cultural diversity. Cable TV is connecting with multicultural America in a way the networks seem incapable of understanding.

The press conference was hosted by the Family Channel and featured Tim Reid, formerly of "Frank's Place." A bit of "Frank's Place" history is important. The CBS series was one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the 1987-'88 season. African-American viewers hailed it as one of the first network shows that accurately reflected some of the richness of black life.

But, for all of that, it was canceled after one year, with CBS moving it all over the schedule and then saying it didn't draw a large enough audience to warrant renewal. "Frank's Place" has since become a kind of touchstone for outdated network thinking and insensitivity to demographics.

Reid wasn't talking about "Frank's Place" at the press conference yesterday, but that history hung in the air as he talked about a movie he is producing for the Family Channel and Black Entertainment Television, "Underground Railroad," the story of two slaves who flee a Southern plantation and head to Ontario. Reid was explaining that he had pitched the story to the traditional networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- for eight years, but they just weren't interested.

Reid said he didn't know why the traditional networks just don't seem to get it when it comes to cultural diversity. "When I sit down and talk to the networks about these kinds of projects," he said, "they're a very hard sell. I mean, some of them think they [the stories] are too soft, some of them think they're unrealistic. I don't know . . . you ask them why they don't do some of the projects that we all would like to see."

But Reid said it's the networks' problem now. Cable ventures, such as the one between BET and the Family Channel, will result in "Underground Railroad" being seen in 40 million homes next year. Tim Reid thinks he's found a home on cable for the stories he wants to tell.

And it's not just Reid. That diversity is everywhere as you move through the screenings, interviews and press conferences here.

There's the Disney channel promoting "The Ernest Green Story," a made-for-TV movie about Green and the other eight black teen-agers who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.

There's MTV showing tape of its viewers, who cite "government being made up of old, white males" as part of the reason for apathy in young viewers. There's also MTV fighting that apathy with its "Choose or Lose" campaign of political coverage and voter registration drives for persons 18 to 24.

And right after MTV, it's on to the Nostalgia Channel, a cable operation aimed at viewers 50 years and older. Nostalgia executives highlighted three nights a week of special film programming aimed at the 13 million blind or visually impaired Americans, during which a narrative is added to the sound mix to explain what viewers can't see.

The Lifetime channel announced a series of town hall meetings hosted by ABC News' Lynn Sherr, "Women and Politics: A Lifetime Challenge." Showtime, announced its launch next month of an entire channel for science fiction fans. There's a Jewish channel. There's a Native American channel.

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