UPN adds white characters to casts of its black shows

April 23, 2003|By Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - UPN, the only network with a block of series featuring mostly black casts, is adding a new ingredient to its urban-flavored programming: white people.

On One on One, a comedy about a single father raising his teen-age daughter, the daughter has a white boyfriend. The father, a TV sports anchor, has a white boss. Girlfriends, which revolves around four single black women, has a major story line in which materialistic real estate agent Toni is engaged to a white Jewish doctor. The title character in Abby, a single woman of mixed parentage, regularly dates white guys.

It's a twist on the formula of most popular black series in the last several years. Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Wayans Bros., Moesha, Roc, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Hughleys and Family Matters rarely featured white characters, or, when they did, portrayed them as clueless bumpkins who clash with the fresh and hip point of view of its key black characters.

The new trend on UPN has continued with Platinum, a drama set in the raw, coarse world of hip-hop music. Platinum, which premiered April 14, centers on two black brothers running a hip-hop label and has several white characters, including a writer for a rap magazine, a rival mogul threatening to take over the label and a rapper with more than a few similarities to Eminem.

UPN is now part of Viacom's vast media umbrella, which also includes CBS, and management at the parent company and the upstart network alike have made crossover a priority, positioning Platinum as a series that could turn around a network desperate to expand its viewer base.

"This is a very important show that we think will speak directly to our audience," UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff said. "We've been looking for a franchise drama that will click in, and we've tried many different things."

Platinum performed reasonably well in its initial airing last week, attracting an average 3.6 million viewers.

Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS, whose mandate includes oversight of UPN, acknowledged earlier this year that the network - with shows ranging from the departing Buffy the Vampire Slayer to WWE Smackdown to Star Trek: Enterprise - has suffered from a lack of focus: five different audiences on five different nights.

"There was the black-sitcom audience," Moonves told television reporters in January. "Then there's the Buffy audience. There's the wrestling audience, the Star Trek audience and the action-movie audience. What we're trying to do slowly with a show like Platinum is to sort of bridge Monday and Tuesday nights." Moonves said he also wanted to make "more of our casts interracial" to expand beyond a black audience.

Eunetta Boone, creator of One on One, said she is comfortable with the mandate from UPN's new management to broaden the network's appeal with more white characters. "It's business," she said.

Even so, she was motivated by a desire that faced her counterparts 30 years ago, when all-white shows started introducing black and Latino characters.

"I welcome the edict to do that," Boone said, "but I was challenged to do it in a way where it didn't look gratuitous. I know some shows that were completely geared to the African-American audience, and when a white character was added, he or she was extra stupid and extra white. It just didn't look real."

In giving the 16-year-old Breanna a white boyfriend, "We wanted to make sure we didn't sell her out," Boone said. "So we made him cute. That was the solution. Being fine takes care of everything. And the black fans just love him. The relationship seems real."

Mara Brock Akil, creator and executive producer of Girlfriends, said she had always planned to have major white characters in her comedy. "I was never given a mandate to do this. I never liked it when people would say we were on `black night' on UPN. I love exploring the human experience as well as the black experience. We really wanted Toni to date outside her race, which is the experience of many professional black women."

Robert Greenblatt, one of the executive producers of Platinum, along with partner David Janollari, said, "There's no black drama on network television, so this is something totally unique to the landscape. It's not about a black family who is struggling. This is a reasonably affluent, upscale family. It's a character-driven family drama."

Screenwriter-author John Ridley (Three Kings), who created Platinum along with director Sofia Coppola, said he is confident that his show can avoid the pitfalls. "There is a real hip-hop mentality to this series, and this is the music that everyone - black, white - loves," he said.

The show's hip-hop backdrop should attract viewers across the board, UPN's Ostroff said, alluding to the recent box-office success of 8 Mile, starring Eminem, and adding that 70 percent of the 18- to 34-year-olds who purchased rap music CDs last year were white.

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