Cosby is gone, not forgotten, in fall schedules

July 15, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Bill Cosby is gone from network prime-time TV. But his legacy is still being felt, especially at NBC -- as viewers are going to find out in the fall.

One of the programming patterns that has caught some critics' attention on the fall preview press tour here is the number of shows that will star African-American actors.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner, of "The Cosby Show," plays a graduate student working at a Manhattan youth center on NBC's "Here and Now." Morris Chestnut of Boyz N the Hood plays a recent college graduate managing a nightclub owned by Patti LaBelle on NBC's "Out All Night." Anna Maria Horsford of "Amen" portrays the owner of a Detriot radio station on NBC's "Rhythm & Blues." Dawnn Lewis, formerly of "A Different World," Holly Robinson of "21 Jump Street" and comedian Mark Curry play high school teachers and roommates on ABC's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper."

Most of the attention is focused on NBC, Cosby's old network, because three of its five new sitcoms feature predominantly African-American casts.

There's a tendency when confronted with such data to rush in and declare a trend -- especially when it looks like a positive one. There's further danger in then carelessly extrapolating a connection from such facts in the TV universe to society at large -- such as saying the shows suggest a more enlightened network environment in America.

In this case, actors and producers caution that the number of shows featuring African-Americans is not an indication of network TV suddenly trying to reflect multicultural America. But it does indicate an important change in network thinking: Cosby's success convinced the networks that big money could be made through positive portrayals of African-American life at a time when the networks simply didn't make such shows. Now when one leaves the schedule, replacements are immediately ordered.

"I don't think the reason for the shows is sociological," Malcolm-Jamal Warner said in an interview. "A lot of it, in my thinking, has to do with the fact that there is no 'Cosby' this year. There's no show about African-American life that's had that kind of success. And so, what you're seeing is a number of shows trying to fill that void and be the next 'Cosby.' "

"It's not cultural," said Richard Vaczy, the executive producer of "Here and Now." "It's a matter of programming in the TV industry -- the way shows are made, tested and get put on the air."

That's the consensus. And to understand what being "the next 'Cosby' " means, those in the industry say you have to look at audiences and think crossover.

Yes, African-American viewers watch more TV than white viewers do. Yes, African-American viewers are becoming a much more important force in local programming decisions in such cities as Baltimore, where they account for about one-fourth of the audience. But ABC, NBC and CBS do not make shows targeted solely at African-American viewers, the networks say.

"The fact of the matter is that black viewers do make up a larger proportion of viewing -- somewhere in the high teens -- as opposed to their actual percentage in the population, which is 11 percent or 12 percent," said Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president for marketing and research at ABC.

"But the fact also is that when it comes to network television, no program that appeals solely to a black audience can survive. Any show that is on network TV has to have an enormously broad appeal. And even shows like "In Living Color" . . . or "Family Matters" . . . these shows do not appeal solely to blacks. If they did, they couldn't survive."

Which is one reason racial depictions on network TV are so complicated. In part because of the demand for crossover and also because of deeper patterns of racism, most network shows still wind up with African-American casts and white executive producers and writers. While there are some African-American writers on staff, that's the situation at "Rhythm & Blues," "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and "Out All Night."

"Here and Now" has some white producers and writers, but the big difference is the presence of Cosby as executive producer. He calls the shots. And that makes all kinds of difference. You can see what kind of difference in the progressive and positive images of "A Different World," which Cosby helped create. The more you investigate the matter of race on TV, the more you realize what an enormous difference Cosby makes even though "The Cosby Show" is off the air.

It's not just that there are four new shows getting network shots in an attempt to fill the gulf Cosby left. Some probably will fail by midseason. It's that networks can no longer imagine a schedule without a "Roc" or "A Different World." And as those shows multiply, the positive images from them are going forth, multiplying and perhaps doing their work in viewers' minds.

"I just think "The Cosby Show" was such a big, important show because, I think, so many people have benefited from those images that were put out there so long," said Robinson, of "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper."

"You think about a black man, you don't think necessarily about someone who's in college, like Theo. Or you don't think about someone who's . . . an obstetrician [like Dr. Huxtable], right? I think a whole generation looked at that show, and now might think, well, maybe it's a black doctor . . . not Huggy Bear [a pimp on the old "Starsky and Hutch" series] or one of those images."

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