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Black TV shows on shaky ground

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the new CW network prepares to unveil its fall lineup next week, the way that African-Americans are portrayed on TV hangs in the balance.

The fledgling network, formed by the merger of the struggling WB and UPN broadcast operations, is expected to announce a fall season aimed at young viewers and anchored by series such as WB's Gilmore Girls and UPN's Veronica Mars.

Unlikely to be on the roster, industry insiders say, are several of UPN's eight African-American-themed sitcoms, including shows such as One on One and Half & Half, which now dominate the network's prime-time viewing hours on Monday and Thursday evenings.

Executives at CW declined to comment except to say that their fall schedule will be revealed to advertisers May 18 in New York.

The new lineup will include the shows that exhibit the widest appeal among young viewers and thus command top advertising dollars. None of the eight UPN shows under review, though popular with African-American viewers, has achieved the kind of crossover hit status that ensures high ad rates.

"The only one we're sure of [finding a home on CW] is Everybody Hates Chris," said Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president for programming at TV One, a cable channel targeting African-American viewers that is negotiating for the right to air reruns of some of the canceled shows in the fall.

Pinkney, whose cable channel is seen in 30.1 million homes, said, "One or two other [African-American-themed] sitcoms might get picked up [by CW], but most of them probably won't, and it's definitely going to make a difference for African-Americans onscreen and off."

Although series such as UPN's One on One, starring Flex Alexander as a Baltimore sportscaster and single father, and Half & Half, featuring Rachel True and Essence Atkins as half-sisters in their 20s, never achieved overall hit status, they found a loyal following among millions of African-Americans.

The numbers are revealing: Although UPN's One on One is the 170th-most-popular show among all network television viewers, it is tied for 11th among black viewers.

Half & Half is ranked 167th among weekly series in overall network viewership and is the seventh-most-popular show with black viewers. The season finales airing this week and next are likely to offer the last chance for viewers to see the shows except in reruns.

"One on One - that's my show," said Shadae Swan, a 19-year-old communications major at Goucher College. "They can't take it off! UPN and WB are the only two channels showing multiple African-American programs that have a new season each year. I don't think I will be watching the new CW if they cancel my shows."

In the past decade, UPN has been praised and criticized for presenting entire evenings of shows featuring predominantly black casts and aimed primarily at black viewers. Depending on one's point of view, such scheduling created programming ghettos or provided much-needed diversity to the overwhelmingly white prime-time network landscape.

"For the black audience, something will be missing with the cancellation of such shows," said Donald Bogle, a New York University professor and author of Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television.

"Even with the distortion in some of these sitcoms, audiences could still go and see some semblance of an African-American community, as well as African-American cultural references. And that would be terrible if it just goes away."

African-American industry executives and members of the Hollywood creative community call the new network a sound business move but express concern that the merger might mean fewer opportunities for young African-American professionals hoping to break into television.

(The CW network will be carried on 16 Tribune Broadcasting stations. The Tribune Co. also owns The Sun.)

Actors and comedians including Jamie Foxx, Brandy, Steve Harvey and Baltimore native Mo'Nique, and writers and producers including Jacque Edmonds (Moesha) and Eunetta T. Boone (The Parkers), jump-started their careers on the WB and UPN.

"If the world were an equal place, and all these writers, actors, directors and interns would be considered equally for all the other opportunities that might abound, then it would fine," said Pinkney, who helped nurture several of the endangered UPN sitcoms in her previous job as senior vice president of comedy development at Paramount Network Television. "But history has shown that's not always the way it works in Hollywood."

UPN's current Monday night lineup includes, in addition to Half & Half and One on One, Girlfriends, a sitcom about four professional women, and All of Us, a series inspired by the home life of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and produced by the Smiths.

On Thursday nights, UPN offers Cuts, a comedic look at a fictional Baltimore barbershop, and Eve, a sitcom named after the hip-hop artist who stars in it as a young fashion designer.

The evening's lineup also includes Love, Inc. a comedy starring Holly Robinson Peete as the head of a dating agency, and Chris Rock's Everybody Hates Chris, an ode to the popular comedian's childhood that is the network's most successful crossover sitcom, finishing 146th overall and fifth among African-American households in its first season.

Beyond Chris, which is considered a shoo-in for CW's lineup, Hollywood insiders point to two long shots among the eight sitcoms: All of Us and Girlfriends.

The former has a chance because CBS and Warner Brothers, which share ownership of CW, would like to avoid alienating the superstar Smiths. The latter is given an outside chance of renewal because, though ranked 165th overall, its audience is primarily young and female. (Supermodel Tyra Banks' reality show, America's Next Top Model, is also likely to make the cut.)

To minimize the potential public relations fallout, CW could renew one or both of the sitcoms but sign on for a "short order" of six episodes. Such a move would allow for a quiet cancellation in November or December, analysts said.

Though next week's merger shines a spotlight on CW, the need for greater diversity on television is widespread, despite repeated promises in recent years from all the networks to remedy the situation.

"A lot of attention is being paid to one network and handful of shows, but there are some industrywide issues still to be addressed," said Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting (owner of WBAL-TV in Baltimore) and co-chair of the National Association of Program Executives.

Another series in jeopardy of being canceled next week is Fox's Bernie Mac, one of the few network shows beyond UPN that deal with black family life. (Fox is scheduled to announce its fall lineup May 19.)

"The shows are visible to everyone, and there's always a reaction when a favorite show goes away. But you won't find better representation on the screen until there's better representation behind the screen," Coleman said.

The 2006 Diversity Report by the Directors Guild of America offers a glimpse into the state of ethnic representation at the networks. After examining all episodes of last season's top 40 network dramas and sitcoms, the guild found that 83 percent of the shows were directed by white men, 10 percent by white women, 5 percent by minority men and 2 percent by minority women.

"For the fifth year in a row, the report reveals that producers and networks have made little or no change in their hiring of women and minority directors," Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild, said in a statement issued with the report last month.

For two decades, Charles Dutton, an Emmy-Award-winning actor and director, has worked to make network television more representative of American life. From 1991 to 1994, he created, starred in and was executive producer of Roc, a critically acclaimed Fox sitcom about a Baltimore sanitation worker.

In 2000, he directed the Peabody-Award-winning HBO miniseries The Corner, which told the story of a Baltimore family's struggle to escape the world of drugs.

"Some of those studios, you walk through and you think you're in 1955 South Africa," Dutton said of Hollywood today. "Some of them you walk through - I won't name them - and you say, 'Well, damn. ...'"

Though not a fan of many of UPN's sitcoms, Dutton says canceling so much of the programming aimed at African-Americans - without offering the audience an improved alternative - is problematic.

Describing some of the UPN shows as "just bad," he said they are based on an "an old-fashioned sitcom style ... that served a certain market, in my opinion, in a very kind of lowbrow way."

Nonetheless, he said, "if you are going to clean house with these shows and wipe out all the on-screen time and job opportunities, then you find new, fresh, black writers and producers and urge them to come up with something that's exciting, different, bold, daring adventurous - even on the edge."

Were that to happen, the loss of UPN's shows might become a catalyst for significant change, Pinkney suggested.

"As wonderful as it was to have a place where you could go and find a lot of African-American programming, UPN often took the other networks off the hook. When you looked at the numbers [on minority representation] from the Directors Guild or the Screen Actors Guild, they looked OK," she said.

"But when you took UPN and its shows out of the numbers, they didn't look so good at all. And that's what we're starting to see. Things are changing throughout the television industry, and, unfortunately, one of the big changes is the loss of a lot of African-American programs that a lot of people depended on. That's very sad."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

WHO'S WATCHING

Rankings for UPN's African-American-themed sitcoms:

Girlfriends : Ranked 165th among all 215 network shows; third among black viewers

All of Us : Ranked 166th overall; fourth among black viewers

Everybody Hates Chris : Ranked 146th overall; fifth among black viewers

Half & Half : Ranked 167th overall; seventh among black viewers

One on One : Ranked 170th overall; 11th among black viewers

Eve : Ranked 178th overall; 17th among black viewers

Cuts : Ranked 171st overall; 18th among black viewers

Love, Inc. : Ranked 169th overall; 22nd among black viewers

[Source: Nielsen Media Research]

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