Color Television

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Why arethere no black stars in the big four networks' new fall lineup? Becauseblacks watch a lot of tv, sometimes twice as much as the average boob-tube-addictedwhite viewer. That advertisers therefore don't court them seems counterintuitive,but it makes sense when you understand the weird new world of "narrowcasting."
Let'slook at the typical heavy tv consumer, as they say in the trade. She'sfemale (60 percent of the prime-time audience); she's old (people over50 watch an hour more per day than the core target demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds);and there's a good chance she's black (the set's on 70 hoursper week in black households, versus 50 hours per week in white ones). She is,in other words, Touched by an Angel, a hugely popular CBS show that features,probably not coincidentally, a black, female, over-50 co-star.

I'venever seen the wholesome Touched by an Angel, and odds are you haven'teither (I'm familiar with this newspaper's demographics). But it'sa top-10 mass audience hit, enjoying almost twice the ratings of a niche showlike Fox's very nasty, very funny Family Guy, which I've watchedregularly since it was introduced last spring. Question: On which show do advertiserspay more for a 30-second commercial? Answer: Family Guy, a top-10 favoritewith teens, 18-to-34-year-olds and men under 50. These are more elusive eyeballsthan Grandma's, so advertisers value them more.

FamilyGuy is rife with tv references?sight gags about The Wonder Years,Star Trek, One Day at a Time, Speed Racer and Calvin Kleincommercials pile up with the speed of a magician's deck of cards?butits executive producers, 25-year-old wunderkind animator Seth MacFarlane andKing of the Hill veteran David Zuckerman, told me they don't watchmuch tv these days. Television writers always say that, and I used to thinkthey were being disingenuous. But the truth is they really don't have timeto sit around slackjawed in front of the set all evening like the typical Nielsonfamily. Nor do they have much respect for those who do, as their writing sometimesmakes clear.

In an earlyFamily Guy episode, the doofus dad rediscovers the joys of real lifeafter accidentally knocking out the local transmitter in a car accident, leavingthe town tv-free. But then the transmitter's repaired, and the family weariesof constantly being urged to go outside and have some fun. "Sure, Dad,"says the daughter, settling in before the tube, "but maybe now it'stime to watch other people have fun. Or get killed! Y'know, whatever'son."

FamilyGuy family members, like all animated tv families right now, are white.They're also a truly awful family, and if they were black you can be surethat Spike Lee, among others, would protest. That's what happened withanother clever new show on Fox, Eddie Murphy's The P.J.s, whichwas pulled from the fall schedule (the only new animated comedy not to makethe lineup), although Fox promises it will be back for midseason. The P.J.swas roundly criticized as insulting to black ghetto dwellers?as indeedit was, but no more so than Family Guy is insulting to middle-class whiteRhode Islanders. This is the sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don'tconundrum that can annoy those whose livelihoods are affected.

A monthago, a black actor named Damon Standifer wrote to The Los Angeles Timescomplaining about how "self-appointed spokespeople for the black community"are one reason networks avoid shows with black casts these days: "If ashow portrays wealthy black people, it's criticized for ignoring the plightof poor ones. If a show features poor black people, it's criticized forstereotyping black people as poor...In past years there were complaints thatthe tv show Seinfeld never featured a black lead. But honestly, whichSeinfeld lead could have been cast as an African-American without drawingprotests: the spastic, bug-eyed Kramer? The chronically unemployed, lazy George?The sexually promiscuous, self-centered Elaine? Had these characters been black,Seinfeld wouldn't have lasted one season."

As it happens,the only Seinfeld character likely to be resurrected in a spin-off isblack. Phil Morris, the actor who played the Johnnie Cochran-like Jackie Chiles,is currently talking to Seinfeld's production company, Castle Rock,about developing a new show starring himself as the fast-talking lawyer. Morrisalso has parlayed the Jackie Chiles character into a starring role in Honda'scurrent tv campaign.

Speakingof Seinfeld and how tv portrays minorities, that show (although I lovedit) stuck in my craw when it insisted that, of its four obviously Jewish maincharacters, only Jerry Seinfeld was actually Jewish. This is an ancient tv traditionexemplified by shows like Columbo, in which Jewish actors and Jewishwriters created characters who were always, mysteriously, Italian. (Like GeorgeCostanza. Right?it's an Italian thing to get in big arguments overmarble rye.) And don't even get me started on the medical shows. RecentlyI read a statistic that something like one out of six doctors these days isAsian. But on Chicago Hope or ER, of course, they're alwayseither white or black.

The laststraw for me with Seinfeld was when a rabbi got a crush on Elaine, theultimate Jewish princess, even though she was "not of his faith."Uh-huh. I called up Lori Jonas, Seinfeld's notoriously cranky publicistat the time, about this and got an earful of nutty spin-control.

"It'snot as if their names are Jewish," she informed me firmly.

"Kramer?"I said.

"Cosmo?"she said.

Anyway,the dearth of black leading characters in the new fall season has led to a torrentof earnest, side-of-the-angels soul-searching in the media, especially afterNAACP president Kweisi Mfume blasted the new season as "a virtual whitewashin programming" at his July 12 speech to the group's annual convention.That thumping sound you hear is The Los Angeles Times patting itselfon the back for its umpteen-part "TV's Diversity Dilemma" coverage,which was actually well reported; the problem began when they hauled out theheavy thinkers.

The usuallysensible Howard Rosenberg, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning tv critic,concluded the series on July 25 with a self-congratulatory essay that began:"Just the other day, it seems?about 1980, actually?I was mountinga soapbox to say in print how rotten it was that no broadcast network had aireda prime-time drama series about blacks." Good for you, Howard! Except...doesn'tthat seem an odd soapbox to mount when the memory of shows like The Jeffersons,Sanford and Son and Good Times was still fresh?

But Rosenbergwas no match in bathos for Mike Downey, the sportswriter turned lead L.A. Timesnews columnist. Downey, whose nickname among his colleagues is Y2K? (a referenceto his rumored salary) has, you see, experienced Hollywood racism directly,even though he's white. First he wrote a script with a black lead characterthat never sold. Then he was asked to work on a film about Jackie Robinson,and the film never got made. (Unmentioned in Downey's column is that anexcellent 1950 film called The Jackie Robinson Story already exists,which would be hard to improve upon, since for one thing it starred Jackie Robinsonas himself.)

"Thereare African American, Latino, Asian and Native American audiences and actors,waiting for something to watch, waiting for someplace to work," Downeyconcluded soggily. "They don't mind shows about white people. Theygrew up watching shows about white people. They just would like a few showsthat aren't about white people." Mike Downey seems awfully sure aboutjust what "they" would like?but then, of course, he's assumingthat this would include a script featuring black characters written by a whiteguy named Mike Downey.

But questionany bit of this worthy attitude and you'll quickly be dismissed as an oldmeanie. Last year I called up the Writers Guild and asked why they publish separatedirectories for women writers, Latino writers and African American writers,but not for men writers or white writers. (Or, for that matter, gentile writers.I mean, why not just go all the way?) "These are outreach programs!"said Zara Buggs Taylor, the Guild's executive administrator for employmentdiversity, yelling into the speakerphone. "Do you believe we livein a colorblind society?"

"No,but I really don't care what color or sex a writer is when I'm watchinga show," I said. "I only care if it's good writing."

Taylor wasstill on the speakerphone, but not for long. "I have to go!" she shouted."Because I have tons of stuff to do if I'm going to open up employmentopportunities for those writers that you don't care about!"

I happento know a producer of one of those 26 whites-only new shows, Rob Long, the cocreator(with his writing partner Dan Staley) of Love & Money, premieringon CBS this fall, Friday nights at 8:30 (you're welcome, Rob). "Yes,one of the bad white shows," Rob said amiably when I called himup. Love & Money is an Upstairs, Downstairs-type comedy abouta young super (working-class Irish) who loves a young heiress (upper-class WASP)living in his Upper East Side building. "We're only talking abouttwo families here," he added, beginning to sound a bit exasperated, "sowhat am I supposed to do? Of all the times in the business for black peopleto be complaining, now is the worst possible time. There are all these blackshows. We are opposite a black sitcom, in fact, on the WB, so what do they wantfrom me?"

Staley-LongProductions have gotten a couple of shows past the pilot stage since leavingCheers, where the writing team were coexecutive producers during thatshow's last season, while still in their twenties. The first was the stillbornPig Sty, for UPN. The second was George & Leo, the Bob Newhart-JuddHirsch vehicle that lasted one season on CBS. "First off," Rob said,"let's get a show on the air. Let's keep a show on theair. With George & Leo, what we liked about it was also what doomedit?that it was about two old guys." Even at CBS, known as the geriatricnetwork, George & Leo skewed too old. As Rob put it: "Our demographicswere awful."

We spokea few days before CBS' fall season press junket, and I wondered how Robwould respond if asked about being one of the new whites-only shows. "We'llbe asked about it, I guarantee you," he said, "because by asking aboutit they can pretend they're doing socially conscious good work as theyfeast on the goodies and the handouts. And my response will be?try thisout?that we're concerned about it, but there's only so much youcan do. The thing that leaps out to me is demographic segregation. At leastwe've always done intergenerational shows."

Actually,though, I guess we both underestimated what out-of-town Jaspers these junketeersare, because not only did no one bring up the "diversity dilemma"at the July 26 Love & Money press conference, there wasn't evenone newsworthy question. Instead, starlet Paget Brewster (who plays the youngheiress) was asked how she got her first name; someone else wanted to know ifBrian Doyle-Murray (who plays the young super's Dad) still gets commentsabout Caddyshack. I thought about raising the topic myself, but decidedthat would have been unscientific, like Jane Goodall manipulating the behaviorof apes instead of just observing it.

"Whatdo you want? They're entertainment journalists," said Rob equablyas we sipped complimentary smoothies in the lobby afterwards. He admitted thathe might have been a bit ticked if I'd started grilling him in public anyway."I'd have said, 'What am I?on trial here?'" headded, only semi-jokingly. He also thanked me for not bringing up his latestNational Review column, an un-p.c. gig he conveniently leaves off hisofficial CBS bio. But the July 26 column is worth noting here, because it makesa cogent argument that tv content isn't as important as the fact that Americanswatch way too much of it:

"...peoplelike their crappy entertainment culture, it makes a whole lot of money,and with a whole lot of money you can buy a very nice president... But assumingthat family-hour programming returned to all television channels?broadcastand cable?would that be such a good thing? Does the fact that content isfree of violence and sex mean it's okay to watch 18 hours of it a week?It is a strange era indeed when the concept of 'family hour' refersnot to time spent with family but with time spent with television."

It mightseem odd for someone in the tv industry to argue for less tv viewing, but, asRob told me, "it would be good for society and good for the business, byreducing inventory a little. If everyone were to watch fewer hours of tv theoverall numbers would go down, but the value would go zooming up, because theattention would matter more."

If you believein the free market, it's hard to be convinced that a slate of new showswith all-white casts (most of which will end up canceled) is a serious socialproblem, especially when you consider the success of programs like Oprahor The Steve Harvey Show or Touched by an Angel. As Rob put itin his next column, titled "Kweisi and Me," "It's sort oflike protesting a certain stock price. Whom do you send letters to? The marketin general? That's an awful lot of cc's."

A few weeksbefore Kweisi Mfume's NAACP speech, The New York Times ran a front-pagestory about the troubling discrepancy between black and white test scores, evenamong students from the same middle-to-upper-middle-class backgrounds. Buriedaround paragraph 64, on the jump, was this sad little fact: black teenagerswatch three hours of tv a day, compared to white teens' one and a halfhours per day. Now, that's a social problem. The best thing Mfumecould do is tell his constituency to just turn the damn set off.

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