Michael Weithorn and Ralph Farquhar had a dream. The two television writers dreamed of creating a realistic comedy-drama series set in the most unfunny setting imaginable: riot-ravaged South-Central Los Angeles.
Still, CBS bought the concept. A few months ago its programmers got their first look at "South Central," the story of a single African-American mother struggling to raise three children. First, they demanded less drama and a lot more comedy. "Make it a black 'Roseanne,' " suggested one CBS executive.
Then there was the matter of Tasha's jacket. In the pilot, the family's teen daughter pesters her unemployed mom for a pricey Cross Colours jacket. CBS wanted Tasha to have that jacket. "They just couldn't comprehend the idea of poverty," says Mr. Weithorn. "We got notes asking, 'Why doesn't the mother put it on her credit card?' "
When CBS didn't get its way, it booted "South Central" -- straight into the eager embrace of the Fox Broadcasting Co.
"Fox saw a unique piece of African-American programming," says Mr. Farquhar. "And they've built a network around that kind of show."
It's about time somebody noticed. For better or worse, the Fox network has quietly cornered the franchise on black-oriented series.
Six currently ride its airwaves with three more (including "South Central") scheduled as midseason replacements.
That adds up to nine black shows -- not only a runaway TV record but also more than double the number that the other three networks combined have.
The House of Murdoch hasn't experienced a sudden attack of racial sensitivity. Going black is simply smart business. When the fourth network came on line in 1986, it needed a potent advertising lure to compensate for its weak station lineup. What demographics do sponsors most prize?
Young, urban and white. Whom does that crowd look to for its what's-hip-next clues? Young, urban and black. Fox Entertainment president Sandy Grushow proudly acknowledges the strategy.
"Sure, we use black shows to hook the hip white audience," he says. "That's one reason we've become the cutting-edge network."
But at what cost? Some influential black entertainers charge that Fox, while giving African-American talent new visibility, too often perpetuates the old demeaning stereotypes: young black men as over sexed, wha's-up buffoons, and young black women as booty-shaking sugar mamas.
Perhaps the most vocal critic is Tim Reid, who starred in CBS' "Frank's Place," the most intelligent black series of the '80s: "By depicting African-American culture solely through the hip-hop generation, Fox is making a tiny segment of us drive our entire TV image. Calling that 'cutting edge' is comical. It's more of a tragedy."
The aim of Fox's first black series was to get noticed, which meant going lewd and crude. While "In Living Color" has $H managed to desegregate sketch comedy, its favorite bits ("The Buttmans," "Wanda the Ugly Woman") tend to reinforce racial stereotypes even as they satirize them.
So, too, does Martin Lawrence's "Martin." Hoisting his crotch, spewing black-jive stereospeak ("Girl, gimme some of the wet mouth"), Martin is the apotheosis of the sex-obsessed homeboy shucking his way to nowhere.
Only "Roc" breaks the pattern, daring to show a working-class African-American family striving -- with dignity and tenacity -- to achieve a better life.
Meeting a new need
The three black series Fox added this season were designed to meet a different strategic need. Now that the network has expanded to seven nights a week, it must broaden its core audience beyond the young: to grow bigger, act older.
Fox's most expensive new act is "Townsend Television," a softer-edged "In Living Color" starring comedian-filmmaker Robert ("Meteor Man") Townsend. The deftest running sketch recasts blacks in classic white roles, from "Our Gang" to "The Godfather."
The dumbest is a TV-commercial parody offering "protection from the 'hood," including the "$5 pimp slap." Obviously there's still some growing-up to do here.
Two new sitcoms also mix their messages. In "The Sinbad Show," the genial comic plays a bachelor who takes in two foster children. Like Martin, Sinbad can be a babe-hounding doofus.
But at least the show says something about the importance of male authority figures in fractured black families -- and without getting all gooey. Nothing, however, can be said for Fox's "Living Single."
This comedy about four African-American women sharing a New York apartment is supposed to be a black "Designing Women," but it's got quadruple the sex drive and none of the smarts. Though all the roommates have college degrees and upscale jobs, they behave like man-crazed Fly Girls.
The men fare no better: The pair who live next door like to drop in by announcing, "We hungry." The rest of the hilarity runs to big-butt jokes, nappy-hair jokes, even long, er, male-member jokes.
When pressed to defend this stuff, Fox president Grushow points to the numbers: "Living Single" is a Nielsen hit. "Fox Broadcasting is a moneymaking business," says Mr. Grushow. "Any time we create a new successful franchise, we're proud of it."
Understandable, yet so is the anger of some blacks (mostly older) who wince at what other blacks (mostly young) find hip. One way to broaden the images of African-Americans would be to get them out of the tube's sitcom ghetto.
That's not happening: The number of black dramas on the four networks stands at zero. Nor is it likely to happen until the industry fully integrates its executive suites. Network television still doesn't have a single black decision maker with the power to green-light a weekly series -- even the dumb ones.
"That's crucial, because too many white TV executives fake a sensitivity to black culture," says Tim Reid. "But they really see us as sort of victimized toys. And if you try to slip your culture
into a show, they do a Mr. Clean. Whiff! You wonder where the black went."
Meanwhile, Fox is readying three more black series to hit the screen by early next year. One, called "Mantis," features a paraplegic biophysicist who turns into television's first African-American superhero. Sounds promising.
Another, "City High," stars rapper Hammer as a high-school history teacher. Sounds less promising. On the other hand, "South Central" almost atones for "Living Single," transporting the comedy-drama genre into a whole new place.
Its unemployed single mother (Tina Lifford) lives with all manner of humiliations. When the supermarket manager insists on cash because her last check bounced, she's forced to return the entire contents of her shopping cart.
At home, she must literally fight for her children's lives: Her teen-age son may join the gang world that killed his older brother. "This show," says co-writer Farquhar, "will force viewers into some very uncomfortable moments involving black existence."
Oh, about that Cross Colours jacket. Tasha gets it -- but only after agreeing to help pay for it on a layaway plan. Nothing funny about that. Just something refreshingly real.