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Living without 'The Roof'


UNTIL THE PAST few weeks I had a regular Tuesday Night routine: Set the VCR to record a TV show that was on from 8-9 p.m. That way interruptions from visitors or phone conversations would not keep me from missing even a minute of my favorite show: "Under One Roof."

As a black woman, I'm eager to find quality shows on television that appeal to my ethnic sensibilities and provide an interesting story line. "Roof," with its believable black characters portrayed by a stellar cast, fit the bill. Or, at least it did until recently.

It seems that CBS, that flagging network which has slid from first to third place in the ratings, shelved the hour-long drama as of April 18.

The network, which had given the OK for just six episodes to be produced, says it may return. I'm less than optimistic. After all, look at the string of quality shows featuring black characters that have been canceled by the major networks in recent years: NBC's "I'll Fly Away," CBS' "Frank's Place," Fox' "Roc" and "South Central."

None of these shows was given the opportunity to flourish and cultivate a large audience that would appreciate quality TV that's not filled with racial or sexual stereotypes and cheap gags to get laughs.

"Roof" was a drama that focused on the lives of a close-knit black family with James Earl Jones playing a recently widowed father who is joined in his home by his son's family. The son and his wife are played by Joe Morton and Vanessa Bell Calloway. Their two children include a 10-year-old diabetic son and a teen-age daughter.

The son's family lives in an upstairs apartment; while the patriarch portrayed by James Earl Jones lives downstairs with a daughter and foster son.

Seldom have black characters with such interesting, complex lives been offered by network television; it's no wonder that the roles attracted such a well-known actor as James Earl Jones, who could have his pick of Broadway and movie roles.

There is so little stimulating commercial television that can appeal to the entire family that the critically acclaimed "Roof" should have stayed on television -- despite low ratings -- as a public service to help show what a functioning family looks like to those in disfunctional ones.

It was a reminder of what our priorities should be: to focus on those who are most important in our lives. Maybe such a show might make many of us pause and say to ourselves: What has happened to those "real family values"?

The show also showed that people of different races can get along. For example, the son Ron has a white business partner. Such messages, however, were not delivered in a preachy tone; they just came through as the drama unfolded.

I know some TV executives will explain the short run in terms of numbers: By averaging a 7.8 rating, it had too few viewers; thus, it couldn't bring in loads of advertising dollars. It wasn't always that way in television; shows used to be allowed to remain in the ratings' cellar and given a chance to find an audience. But today networks are too eager to bump shows to different time slots and take them on indefinite hiatus. That just leaves many viewers confused and frustrated.

As television executives sit around and count spaces and time slots for programs; as they try to be cost effective and yet provide entertainment for every demographic group; they need to remember that it's not just a ratings game. They are in a postion to shape the way the public views the world too.


Stephanie L. Dunn writes from Baltimore.

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