If it gets sorted out, 'Rhythm & Blues' could be a hit

September 24, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

NBC's unveils its "Cosby" strategy tonight with the debut of "Rhythm & Blues." And there are big, big bucks riding on this show and game plan.

"Rhythm & Blues," a sitcom about a black radio station in Detroit that hires a white disc jockey by mistake, is not expected to replace "Cosby" directly. Long-time ratings-winner, "A Different World," has been moved from 8:30 p.m. to the lead-off spot at 8 p.m., which "Cosby" held for so many years and for so many, many millions of dollars on NBC.

But "Rhythm & Blues" is being asked to replace "A Different World" at 8:30 and keep the audience tuned to NBC for "Cheers" at 9. That's a huge order, especially in light of the competition on Fox in the form of "Martin," another sitcom about the world of Detroit radio that stars Martin Lawrence and is already looking like a hit.

If "Rhythm & Blues" loses the NBC audience from "A Different World" to Fox and "Martin" at 8:30, NBC is in a world of trouble on what used to be its biggest night. "Cheers" will undoubtedly lose some of its audience, and the lineup of "The Simpsons," "Martin" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" will become a regular money-machine for Fox.

"Rhythm & Blues" is not a bad show. But it has one problem right out of the box that could doom it with black viewers. The premise of the show is that the all-black radio station in Detroit is a mess. It's so poorly run by the founder's widow (Anna Maria Horsford) it's about to go under.

In her ineptitude, the widow hires a new disc jockey, hoping he can work some last-second ratings magic. But it turns out the disc jockey (Roger Kabler) is white.

She lets him go on the air anyway -- sounding like he might be black -- and he's a big hit. That's where the pilot ends.

Black critics and members of the TV industry have objected to the message -- intentional or not -- of a white man as "savior" to a black business. And they are absolutely right. It is insensitive if not downright ignorant. And I suspect NBC will pay with black viewers preferring "Martin," the show with a black star and greater sensitivity.

But that doesn't mean "Rhythm & Blues" is history. The producers say they have been working on getting the messages race straightened out. And Kabler is a large comedy talent -- so large that his high-energy, almost-manic performance tonight will remind some viewers of the first time they saw Robin Williams on "Mork and Mindy." There is also a strong supporting cast that includes the likes of Ron Glass, formerly of "Barney Miller."

I'm betting "Rhythm & Blues" will get smarter and Kabler will impress some viewers. But I think with its early start and talented star, "Martin" has already stolen enough of the audience to make Thursday nights quieter over at "Cheers" on NBC.

'Rhythm & Blues'

When: Tonight at 8:30

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

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