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No Smooth Ride on TV Networks’ Road to Diversity…

March 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) On the eve of Barack Obama’s election last fall as the first African-American president, television seemed to be leaning toward a post-racial future. In October two prominent cable networks — CNN and Comedy Central — began new programs that featured black hosts, a development that was notable because so few current programs on cable or broadcast channels have minority leads.

Five months later both programs — “Chocolate News,” featuring David Alan Grier on Comedy Central, and “D. L. Hughley Breaks the News” on CNN — have been discontinued. In addition, CW, the broadcast network that regularly features comedies with largely African-American casts, announced in February that it was renewing six popular series, but its two with mostly black performers — “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game” — were not among them. (The network says it is still deciding their fates.)

One of the few new series from last fall to feature a black lead, Fox’s situation comedy “Do Not Disturb,” was canceled after only three episodes because of low ratings. And when Jay Leno’s impending departure from “The Tonight Show” caused a shuffling among the late-night talk-show hosting chairs, the lineup remained a white male domain.

All of which raises some questions about whether television actually made any progress last fall in better reflecting the audience it serves, and whether viewers will see a return to old, monochromatic ways in the coming season. Comedy Central and CNN both said last week that their respective shows were not canceled; they simply were not continuing. Jenni Runyan, a spokeswoman for Comedy Central, whose executives declined to comment for this article, said “Chocolate News” completed its entire run of 10 episodes but was not renewed for a second season. She said the network does not talk about why shows are not renewed.

“Chocolate News” drew an average of 1.5 million viewers over its run, according to Comedy Central, down from the 2.1 million who watched the debut episode. Mr. Hughley’s show on CNN, which will continue through the end of the month, has drawn roughly 750,000 viewers per episode, CNN said.

CNN also declined to make executives available to comment. The network issued a statement saying that Mr. Hughley would remain a contributor for the network. The decision to discontinue his show, a comic take on the news that was shown on Saturday nights, came after he asked the network to move the show’s production from New York to Los Angeles, where his family lives.

Certainly both CNN and Comedy Central feature African-Americans and other minorities among their performers and news anchors. To some in the industry, however, these most recent developments were another verse of a much-heard song.

“I don’t know what to say to these networks that don’t put on shows with black leads,” said Larry Wilmore, who has a recurring role as the “senior black correspondent” on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and who was an executive producer on “The Bernie Mac Show,” which ran for five seasons on Fox.

Minority talents “are faring better in dramas as part of ensembles than as leads,” Mr. Wilmore said.

“I don’t think there is anything sinister going on,” he continued. “It is just an unfortunate coincidence and situation.”

In a report issued last December, the N.A.A.C.P. said that the number of minority actors in regular or recurring roles on three of the four major networks had decreased markedly in the 2006-7 television season from their peaks several seasons earlier. Only ABC showed an increase in the number of minority roles during that time, according to the report, which lamented the “gross underrepresentation of minorities” in scripted entertainment.

Among the pilots under development for next season, few have cast blacks or Hispanics as lead characters. Fox has already ordered a full season of episodes of “The Cleveland Show,” an animated spinoff of “Family Guy” that focuses on Cleveland Brown, an African-American character, and his family. Most of the members of that family are voiced by black actors, although Cleveland himself is the creation of Mike Henry, who is white.

Ron Taylor, the vice president for diversity development at Fox Entertainment Group, said that the choice of Mr. Henry was initially a concern at Fox, but that executives there quickly grew comfortable with his portrayal of the character, as well as with the ethnic diversity of the writing staff and the rest of the cast. Perhaps most notably, Cleveland’s white, redneck neighbor, Lester, is voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, an African-American, who also voices Cleveland Jr.

Fox is also considering an African-American-led sitcom titled “Brothers” for its fall lineup. It features Daryl Mitchell, known as Chill, who was paralyzed in a 2001 motorcycle accident and uses a wheelchair, and Michael Strahan, the former Giants football star. ABC is considering “The Law,” a pilot starring Cedric Kyles, popularly known as Cedric the Entertainer. And CBS has cast the rapper L L Cool J in a planned spinoff of “NCIS,” its procedural crime drama.

But those are just 4 of the nearly 70 pilot projects under development by the four major networks. The relative dearth of mainstream television series with black lead performers makes the success of a producer like Tyler Perry, whose “House of Payne” on TBS is but one part of his comedy conglomerate, all the more remarkable.

The networks say they are addressing the issue both in front of and behind the cameras. Paula Madison, an executive vice president at NBC Universal who oversees its diversity efforts, said Hollywood tended to draw a fair number of aspiring writers and directors from film schools and graduate programs that are themselves not greatly diverse. NBC Universal has worked to counteract that by providing extra money for shows that add minority members to the writing and production staff.

“We are at the point where more and more people of color are working at higher levels,” Ms. Madison said. “That is making us more effective at having diversity in the room at the beginning, and in seeing diverse projects coming in the door.”


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