UPN makes up for last year's mistake

TV: Once-denounced network puts more black talent on the air and those stars applaud its action.

July 20, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- Was it only 10 months ago that UPN was being denounced by African-American groups over its then-new sitcom, "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfieffer"?

Talk about turnaround. The network is now the home of some of the best black talent in Hollywood and proud of it.

UPN yesterday showcased its African-American programming for television critics gathered here for the summer press tour, and it was an impressive sight.

After the NAACP threat to sue the four major networks over the fact that none of their 27 new fall series will have a leading character who is black, it was a chance to hear what black actors, writers and producers have to say about the sociology of the images they create.

"I don't believe the four big networks [ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox] are intentionally doing this, but people have to pay attention," said Ralph Farquhar, executive producer of "Moesha."

"The makeup of America has changed radically over the past 20 or 30 years, yet network TV doesn't reflect the diversity and composition of the American population, Farquhar said.

"It's ridiculous that there are no Latino lead series on TV. It's ridiculous that there are no Asian-American lead series on TV. It's ridiculous that there are so few African-Americans," added Farquhar.

His resume includes creation of the acclaimed series "South Central," which was canceled in 1994 after less than a season on Fox, along with "Roc." His latest creation, "The Parkers," a "Moesha" spinoff starring Countess Vaughn and Baltimore's Mo'Nique, premieres next month on UPN.

"Network executives often say, `We're in the business of entertainment,' using that as an excuse.

"But, in fact, given the stratification of audiences, it makes good business sense to reach out to all the various audience segments. But again, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox chose not to, and it's just ludicrous," Farquhar concluded.

"I definitely am a supporter of the NAACP," said Brandy Norwood, star of "Moesha," which is entering its fifth season. "UPN is a network that supports African-American series like `Moesha' and `The Parkers,' and I'm happy to be with them."

Then, giving a glimpse of how careful some performers feel they have to be about the NAACP's stand, Brandy added, "That's the statement I've been nervous about making all day."

But African-American producers and writers, who say they have been fighting to get black images on the screen for years, were less nervous about speaking out on the state of network TV.

"It is just ridiculous what's going on. I think it's a shame, and we all have to be concerned," said Sara V. Finney, co-creator of "The Parkers" and former producer of "Family Matters" on ABC.

"The lack of African-Americans, Asians and Latinos is beyond belief. The people in power need to open themselves up to the new possibilities of diversity. We need to be real. There are all kinds of people here in America, and they need to be reflected in TV and film," she added.

When asked about the whitewash at the big four this fall, actor Jaleel White said: "I wish I had an answer. For some reason when they [network programmers] go in their development rooms, they want to fit everything into some mold in their heads or something."

White, known to millions as nerdy Steve Urkel of "Family Matters," will join UPN this fall as a grown-up in a sitcom titled "Grown Ups."

Tom Nunan, the president of UPN, said he's glad the network is starting to get some credit for its commitment to African-American characters. He points to series like "Moesha" that have been on the air for several seasons to back up his claim that UPN was just as committed last year when it was facing protests over "Desmond Pfieffer," a sitcom set in the Civil War era about a black valet to President Lincoln.

"What was it like last year? It was horrible, terrible," he said of the pickets, protests and constant barrage of criticism in the press.

"I think what we went through was 10 times worse probably than what ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are now feeling, because we were out there alone," he said.

In light of the NAACP denunciation, "what are the executives at those networks now feeling? I don't know. But you have to wonder what they were thinking to not have any lead minority characters in any of their shows. African-Americans are 13 percent of the population. There's a big African-American middle class. How could ignoring them make any kind of sense?"

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