With the television networks' new season announced in New York last week, and the great American ritual of the buying and selling of airtime for next fall beginning, most of the talk at the press conferences and parties involved ratings, audience shares and demographics.
But one of the most important assessments of the situation was made here in Baltimore, and it had more to do with the sociology of the schedules than their money-making potential. "I think some progress has been made," John C. White, spokesman for the NAACP, said in an interview after all six schedules had been announced. "I think our efforts certainly did make a difference. We started the ball rolling."
White was comparing the overall landscape of network television this year to last. And at one level, the progress seems obvious.
Last year at this time, the NAACP looked at 27 new fall series from the four largest and most established networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- and found none with a leading character who was African-American, Latino or Asian.
The new fall lineups announced last week include such series as "Gideon's Crossing," a doctor drama on ABC with Andre Braugher in the lead and Ruben Blades among the ensemble cast, and "DAG," an NBC sitcom co-starring David Alan Grier and featuring Mel Jackson in its supporting cast. All are African-American except Blades, who is Latin.
There are also a number of midseason pickups for series featuring such performers as Damon Wayans, whose sitcom "The Wife and Kids" will be added to the ABC schedule later in the year.
A full assessment of minority representation by the NAACP won't be possible until the pilots for all the new series are seen. This is especially true for ensemble dramas like Steven Spielberg's "Semper Fi" Marine Corps drama on ABC, which appears to have three Latinos in featured roles. The networks don't start releasing the pilots until after the current season ends with the conclusion of May "sweeps" next week. Some series won't be seen until they are screened for critics in July.
But just crunching the numbers on new series with minority stars this year vs. last can miss the deeper change that has been affected in network television since NAACP President Kweisi Mfume used the civil rights organization's national convention last June to excoriate the networks for the lack of diversity in their new series.
Going strictly by the numbers, you have a mixed bag. Yes, several series with minority stars did make the fall schedules, and that's a good thing, because even one series making it would be an improvement. But the networks picked up only a handful of series starring minorities while, according to some estimates, as many as 60 of the 120 or so pilots in production had minority leads.
Still the primary reason there were so many pilots in production featuring minorities in the first place was because of the NAACP's year-long campaign that included threats of boycotts and led to agreements in which the networks pledged to bring more minorities into the process of creating pilots. That inclusion has already begun.
As Grier said last week, "Everybody I know got a [development] deal." Or, as John Kimble, the head of television talent for William Morris, put it in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "It was a good year to be a minority."
But the NAACP had other accomplishments -- some of which are easier to measure.
One of the biggest victories and, perhaps, the clearest indication of change did not involve a new series but rather one already on the air. Last week, CBS renewed "City of Angels," the medical drama featuring a predominantly African-American cast and minority crew under the direction of Emmy Award winner Paris Barclay.
In a strictly business sense, "City of Angels" had cancellation-level ratings. But the NAACP mounted a campaign to keep "City of Angels" on the air, and it worked. "We had our chapters contact CBS asking that 'City of Angels' be kept on the air. We did an event with Paris Barclay in New York to rally support. I think it helped," White said, pointing out that nationally syndicated African-American disc jockey Tom Joyner's on-air support of the series was certainly important, too.
In announcing the renewal last week, CBS chairman Les Moonves noted the campaign saying, "Obviously a lot of attention is being paid to the series."
Two other important changes took place this season that can also be linked to the NAACP putting the networks on notice: leading African-American characters were added to two of the most successful series on television. Jesse L. Martin joined "Law & Order" as Detective Edward Jordan, and Henry Simmons was added to "NYPD Blue" as Detective Baldwin Jones. Both series have been enriched by their arrivals. "And they have been developed as fuller characters from the start, unlike the way it was for Lt. Fancy [James McDaniel] on 'NYPD Blue,' where you only saw him at work," the NAACP's White said. "I think we're starting to see that kind of change in the kinds of stories that are told about African-American characters."
Changing the narratives of network television is a huge task, and results should not be expected overnight, says Sasha Torres, professor of television at the Johns Hopkins University and editor of the book, "Living Color: Race and Television in the United States." She warns against coming to any grand conclusions based only on the number of minority characters one year to another. "What ultimately matters is not so much increased representation -- more black bodies on screen -- but rather changing the demographics of production. That's how you ultimately change narration, visual style and all the other factors connected to the context within which minority characters are presented," Torres explains. "What really excites me about the NAACP's effort is that it seems committed to that kind of long-term institutional change in network television. But, remember, these are institutions that have resisted such change for a long, long time."
Pub Date: 5/21/00