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Mfume widens call for diverse TV

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the eve of this year's convention in Baltimore, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said his organization intends to broaden its call for greater diversity within television network programming by casting a critical new spotlight on news and sports shows.

"The NAACP is not like the circus on this effort - we're not here today, and gone in a few days," Mfume said in an interview.

"Much of what was wrong with television didn't happen because there are bad people in place. There were bad decisions because there was an absence of advocacy. There were bad decisions because networks, as well as advocacy groups, fell asleep at the wheel," he said.

Mfume's declaration follows a heady year in which his denunciation of the networks' lack of on-air diversity in entertainment - a "virtual whitewash," in his memorable phrase - led to a series of pacts earlier this year between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and each of the four major networks.

In the interview, Mfume claimed some minor success in that effort, which had set no specific goals for the number of nonwhite characters on prime-time shows. Instead it created initiatives to identify and cultivate more black talent in the field, both on- and off-camera. The networks said they would work harder to fill executive posts with minorities. And they agreed to spend more money to promote shows with black actors in leading roles.

As a starting point for the news-show effort, researchers at the NAACP examined last year's offerings from the four major Sunday morning talk programs: ABC's "This Week," CBS's "Face the Nation," "Fox News Sunday," and NBC's "Meet the Press."

"When you look at 'Meet the Press,' 'Face the Nation' or 'This Week,' our review of 1999 shows that about 97 percent of guests have been white," Mfume said. An aide later said that the review of the Fox Sunday show generated roughly the same figure.

The standard network response, he said, was that "these are shows that are low in demographics, so they don't really count." But, he said, "they influence much of the psychology of policy that gets in place. The [Sunday morning shows] really ought to be a diverse set of ideas shared and a diverse set of opinions aired."

In addition, Mfume said, the NAACP intends to push for greater representation of blacks and other minorities in the ranks of executives and producers within the networks' sports divisions.

While expressing agreement with Mfume's concerns, network news representatives did not rush to agree with his conclusion.

"We take the issue of diversity very seriously, but 'This Week' is first and foremost a news program," said Su-Lin Nichols, a spokeswoman for ABC News. "We book our guests based on the news."

She noted Mfume is scheduled to be a guest tomorrow.

Dana McClintock, vice president for communications at CBS Television, said: "We believe we are second to none in terms of reporting the news that reflects the diversity of this country. We realize, however, that there is always more that can be done in this area."

On the entertainment side, Mfume said that he thought the initiative appeared to be yielding some results.

"We began with what we thought was the most visible and the most vulnerable" target, Mfume said. "We're pleased that we're able to see incremental progress."

The decision by CBS to renew the inner-city medical drama, "City of Angels," a critically well-received show with marginal ratings, is at least partly credited to the attention stirred by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. Blair Underwood and several other black actors are prominent in the ensemble cast.

Several new fall shows will also star African-Americans and Hispanics in leading roles. For example, Andre Braugher will star in the ABC medical drama "Gideon's Crossing," and David Allen Grier will co-star as a Secret Service agent in the NBC sitcom "DAG." Both actors are African-American.

Last year, by comparison, there were no black leads among the 27 new prime-time shows unveiled by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

"I don't think our job is complete by any means, but we've made great inroads," said Shirley Powell, a senior vice president in NBC's entertainment division, the first network unit to sign a pact with the NAACP promoting diversity.

Powell pointed to a daylong NBC symposium on diversity in February, attended by Mfume and other civil rights leaders, to which the network also invited outside producers, directors, writers and agents.

Entertainment trade publications reported last week that John Wells, whose company produces such NBC hits as "ER," "Third Shift" and "West Wing," had established an apprenticeship for minority and women directors to receive training on his shows.

Similarly, CBS's McClintock noted that his network had joined the National Minority Vendors Association as a result of its agreement with the NAACP to reach out to black contractors.

"We're proud of our track record in the diversity arena, and we remain committed to improving upon that record," said Chris Ender, a senior vice president in CBS' entertainment department.

But television presents a rapidly shifting target for Mfume and the NAACP. For one, as the NBC symposium suggests, the networks do not produce all the programs they broadcast. For that, they often rely on outside production companies.

Second, and perhaps more important, television is no longer solely the domain of the major networks.

While ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC retain a plurality of viewers on any given night, there are now six networks, with UPN and the WB thrown into the mix. And widely available cable stations offer shows on sports, celebrities, cooking, wildlife, shopping and almost any other imaginable activity.

In a tartly worded April report on the business side of the cable industry, the NAACP gave it an overall grade of C.

AT&T; and Comcast's cable divisions, which respectively serve Baltimore City and Baltimore County, each received a relatively high grade of B minus.

Mfume conceded that the blooming of cable allows programs to be pitched to increasingly narrow audiences. But he said the question of diversity presents the networks with an opportunity to win back wider audiences.

"The smarter networks are trying to put on shows that are more diverse in their themes and their characters," Mfume said.

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