Black TV shows on shaky ground

Network merger could lead to demise of many sitcoms

May 10, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As the new CW network prepares to unveil its fall lineup next week, the way that African-Americans are portrayed on TV hangs in the balance.

The fledgling network, formed by the merger of the struggling WB and UPN broadcast operations, is expected to announce a fall season aimed at young viewers and anchored by series such as WB's Gilmore Girls and UPN's Veronica Mars.

Unlikely to be on the roster, industry insiders say, are several of UPN's eight African-American-themed sitcoms, including shows such as One on One and Half & Half, which now dominate the network's prime-time viewing hours on Monday and Thursday evenings.

Executives at CW declined to comment except to say that their fall schedule will be revealed to advertisers May 18 in New York.

The new lineup will include the shows that exhibit the widest appeal among young viewers and thus command top advertising dollars. None of the eight UPN shows under review, though popular with African-American viewers, has achieved the kind of crossover hit status that ensures high ad rates.

"The only one we're sure of [finding a home on CW] is Everybody Hates Chris," said Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president for programming at TV One, a cable channel targeting African-American viewers that is negotiating for the right to air reruns of some of the canceled shows in the fall.

Pinkney, whose cable channel is seen in 30.1 million homes, said, "One or two other [African-American-themed] sitcoms might get picked up [by CW], but most of them probably won't, and it's definitely going to make a difference for African-Americans onscreen and off."

Although series such as UPN's One on One, starring Flex Alexander as a Baltimore sportscaster and single father, and Half & Half, featuring Rachel True and Essence Atkins as half-sisters in their 20s, never achieved overall hit status, they found a loyal following among millions of African-Americans.

The numbers are revealing: Although UPN's One on One is the 170th-most-popular show among all network television viewers, it is tied for 11th among black viewers.

Half & Half is ranked 167th among weekly series in overall network viewership and is the seventh-most-popular show with black viewers. The season finales airing this week and next are likely to offer the last chance for viewers to see the shows except in reruns.

"One on One - that's my show," said Shadae Swan, a 19-year-old communications major at Goucher College. "They can't take it off! UPN and WB are the only two channels showing multiple African-American programs that have a new season each year. I don't think I will be watching the new CW if they cancel my shows."

In the past decade, UPN has been praised and criticized for presenting entire evenings of shows featuring predominantly black casts and aimed primarily at black viewers. Depending on one's point of view, such scheduling created programming ghettos or provided much-needed diversity to the overwhelmingly white prime-time network landscape.

"For the black audience, something will be missing with the cancellation of such shows," said Donald Bogle, a New York University professor and author of Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television.

"Even with the distortion in some of these sitcoms, audiences could still go and see some semblance of an African-American community, as well as African-American cultural references. And that would be terrible if it just goes away."

African-American industry executives and members of the Hollywood creative community call the new network a sound business move but express concern that the merger might mean fewer opportunities for young African-American professionals hoping to break into television.

(The CW network will be carried on 16 Tribune Broadcasting stations. The Tribune Co. also owns The Sun.)

Actors and comedians including Jamie Foxx, Brandy, Steve Harvey and Baltimore native Mo'Nique, and writers and producers including Jacque Edmonds (Moesha) and Eunetta T. Boone (The Parkers), jump-started their careers on the WB and UPN.

"If the world were an equal place, and all these writers, actors, directors and interns would be considered equally for all the other opportunities that might abound, then it would fine," said Pinkney, who helped nurture several of the endangered UPN sitcoms in her previous job as senior vice president of comedy development at Paramount Network Television. "But history has shown that's not always the way it works in Hollywood."

UPN's current Monday night lineup includes, in addition to Half & Half and One on One, Girlfriends, a sitcom about four professional women, and All of Us, a series inspired by the home life of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and produced by the Smiths.

On Thursday nights, UPN offers Cuts, a comedic look at a fictional Baltimore barbershop, and Eve, a sitcom named after the hip-hop artist who stars in it as a young fashion designer.

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