Networks give NAACP threat lip service only

Analysis: Big four talk a good game, but actions on `Roc' and `Homicide' speak loudly. Progress remains to be seen.

July 14, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The big four broadcast networks were saying all the right things yesterday in response to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume's threat to sue them over the fact that, of the 26 new series set to debut this fall, not one has a leading character who is African-American.

If you closed your eyes and forgot everything you knew about the history of the networks and how they have handled such images, you might even believe ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox were really going to start offering more diverse programming. But, if you did believe, you would be a fool.

"We agree with the NAACP that insuring racial and ethnic diversity in TV is an important goal, and we welcome the opportunity to meet with Mr. Mfume," Fox said in a statement.

"ABC takes the issue of diversity in our programming seriously. We are making improvements in this area, and we understand that we need to do more," ABC responded.

Scott Sassa, the West Coast president of NBC, said, "Including minorities on air is an issue that has been a priority for some time."

Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, said, "Those of us in the entertainment industry need to make sure the characters on the screen reflect the diversity of our population as a whole."

But, taken in context of what they have pledged in the past vs. what they have delivered today, the statements virtually define "lip service."

A year ago, Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, told a group of television critics one of the network's "major goals" was to make ABC "more inclusive." When asked how soon that was going to happen, she said, "Next Friday."

Realizing how flip she sounded, Tarses quickly added, "No, I mean, I think we are always looking to make the ensembles of all our shows as eclectic as we can. It's genuinely something we aspire to."

Six months ago, Sassa, an Asian-American who had just taken charge of NBC in Los Angeles, told a group of critics one of the network's major goals was "more diversity" in its prime-time lineup. Four months later, Sassa canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," the very model of a show with a range of featured roles for African-American actors.

"In terms of race, `Homicide' is the most progressive program on network television," said Sasha Torres, director of the film and media studies program at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Living Color: Race and Television in the United States."

It is an assessment Mfume has agreed with on-air during installments of his "Bottom Line" talk show, in which he celebrated "Homicide" for its "rich array of African-American images."

What truly undercuts the sincerity of NBC's commitment to diversity is that it canceled "Homicide" in May and kept on "The Profiler," a far less honored drama that actually did worse in the ratings than "Homicide."

Tom Fontana, one of the executive producers of the series, said NBC told him the network did not yet have enough episodes of "Profiler" to make the maximum in the secondary market of syndication sales, while they had already reached that number with "Homicide."

I have no doubt the extra dollars were a factor. But, in the economics of network TV, such secondary sales for a series like "Profiler" amounts to nickels and dimes. If that's all excellence in images of diversity is worth to NBC, then it isn't worth much.

As for Fox, this is the network that Rupert Murdoch built on the backs of blacks viewers. Then, once Fox started crossing over to more and more white viewers, it started dumping such shows as "Roc" and "South Central."

Remember "Roc," the sitcom about the family of a hard-working Baltimore sanitation worker played by Charles "Roc" Dutton? Too realistic and gritty for Fox, so they canceled it in May 1994.

Two months later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced on behalf of his Rainbow Coalition a boycott of Fox in part over the cancellation of "Roc" and "South Central."

Fox withstood the boycott with no measurable loss of advertising or viewership. Some in the industry yesterday said, off the record, that the weakness of that boycott probably helped lead to the current mindset by the four major networks.

Beyond the four major networks and in fairness to the overall TV industry, members of the creative community stressed yesterday that African-American images are not totally disappearing from our screens.

"They [the NAACP] are taking it a little bit to the extreme to say there are no black faces on network TV," said Paris Barclay, a producer and director for "NYPD Blue" and one of the few African-Americans working at the executive level of a network series.

"The networks haven't hired a diverse and broad enough group of people, and these shows are the byproduct of who they hired. If the networks start to take chances with new kinds of producers and writers, they will get more diversity and they will get better TV," he said.

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