Out of this 'World' Star believes changes in schedule contributed to plunge in ratings

February 04, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

There's going to be something very different about Thursday nights on NBC starting tonight: "A Different World" won't be there.

Without much notice, NBC has sent the long-running sitcom about life at a historically black college off to the never-never land of "hiatus."

Meanwhile, NBC's Thursday nights will feature two episodes of "Cheers" -- one at 8, the other at 9 -- "Wings" at 8:30, "Seinfeld" at 9:30, and "L.A. Law" at 10, leaving "A Different World" as the odd show out in a desperate February sweeps lineup shuffle.

One person not at all happy about what has happened to the show is Jasmine Guy, who stars in the series as Whitley Gilbert.

"I just feel so dissed," she said during an interview last month in Los Angeles when she was asked about NBC's taking the show off the air. "I never heard of taking a show off [the air] and then bringing it back on. What is that about?"

What it's about is ratings.

For five years, "A Different World" followed "The Cosby Show" at 8:30 on Thursday nights and generally finished in the top 20 of all prime-time shows.

It did even better with African-American viewers. "A Different World" was the highest rated show in the country with black viewers, beating out other NBC shows with black casts, namely "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "The Cosby Show."

In Baltimore, which has the highest percentage of black viewers of any major market, the series about life at the fictional Hillman College was consistently a top 10 show on WMAR (Channel 2).

But, this year, with "Cosby" gone, "A Different World" was moved to 8 p.m. Thursdays and paired with "Rhythm & Blues," a sitcom about a white disc jockey taking a job at a black-owned radio station and saving it. Not only was "Rhythm & Blues" a ratings disaster, but it offended some black viewers with its implied message of a white disc jockey being needed to "save" a black-owned station.

When NBC pulled "Rhythm & Blues," it moved "A Different World" back to 8:30, pairing it with "Out All Night," a new series featuring Patti LaBelle as the owner of a nightclub. It was almost as bad a match. "Out All Night," which has also been put on hiatus, is mainly a feel-good-and-get-silly show.

While "A Different World" is a sitcom that aims for laughs, it also has a serious side. Bill Cosby is the executive producer and the show's overriding messages are about achievement, higher education and the African-American experience.

The show's ratings have dropped dramatically this year. It is no longer even among the top 50. Worse, it never wins its time period against such competition as "The Simpsons" and "Martin" on Fox.

Part of the reason for the drop is surely the loss of Cosby's lTC coattails. But Guy feels that being moved around hasn't helped either.

"You know they did that with "Frank's Place," which was a terrific show, but you couldn't find it," she said. "You can't expect the audience to follow the changes. . . . I think we lost a lot of our audience that way."

Guy said she is proud of "A Different World" and the work she's done on it, but she said it has been a struggle to persuade NBC to let the show be more than just another sitcom.

According to Guy, producer Debbie Allen had to fight for episodes about such topics as apartheid, the presidential election and acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- some of ** the episodes Guy is proudest of.

"They're scared," she said of the network. "They're scared of the material. They're scared that we're a comedy and that we're not being funny enough.

"But to me, our funniest shows are our most tragic, because human beings do that: When they're sad or when something bad has happened, they make jokes to try and get above it. That

gives people something they can relate to."

Guy said she hasn't given up hope that "A Different World" will make a comeback. NBC says the show will return in March. But such promises have been broken before.

Even if "A Different World" does come back on the air, it probably won't be on Thursdays. And another move will probably mean the show will lose even more of its audience.

"It could be [the end], I don't know," Guy said. "We still have 10 to12 episodes [that NBC has paid for], so . . . we're just kind of taking it show by show.

"And I think we've gotten a lot from it. So, if it does end, I don't think there will be any regrets. If it ended, I think we could still leave and feel good about the work that we did and the tremendous growth that the show had. . . . I've grown, I've grown up on the show."

Guy was already a considerable talent when she began her role on "A Different World."

She had danced with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and acted on Broadway. But her growth as a dramatic actress can be seen starting Feb. 14 in "Queen," a CBS mini-series about Alex Haley's paternal grandmother. While everyone probably will be talking about Halle Berry, who is terrific in the role of Queen, it is Guy who carries the first three hours of the saga as Queen's mother, a slave.

Guy said she is happy with the role, but cautioned about reading too much into it as pertains to the situation for African-American actors in Hollywood.

"I think things are better [for black actors], but it's not equal," she said. "Yeah, we're progressing, but it would be nice if sometime I was put in the part that goes to Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan . . . the romantic lead. I mean, why not?"

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.