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Diversity? Signs point in all directions but forward

The fall TV landscape can make you wonder whether the networks are progressing in their efforts to bring more people of color to the screen.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


PASADENA, Calif. -- She earned rave reviews for her turn as a crack-addicted mother on HBO's urban drama The Corner and as the sister of driven Dr. Peter Benton on NBC's hit ER.

So when HBO bought her idea for a drama about a powerful, philandering female politician, Khandi Alexander thought her creative course was set. Then came the requests for changes. And more changes.

Can you make the character's husband, who is white, a black man? Does her lover have to be black? Can you rewrite the script? With a professional writer?

After a year of writing, rewriting and even pitching the script to all the major networks, Alexander came to a heartbreaking conclusion: It would never get made.

Why? "You've seen the networks . . . all the things they have out. Do they have a black woman leading any hour shows?" she said during CBS's press party for the new spinoff series CSI: Miami, on which she plays a coroner. "When I saw the reality of my (HBO) situation, I thought, maybe it's not going to happen right now. Maybe it's not going to happen in my lifetime."

Instead, Alexander will appear in a show that is based in Miami, yet has just one Latino actor in its core cast. She hopes a relationship with CBS might provide the access she needs to get her project made.

"The actress (in me) was getting antsy, and I had bills to pay," said Alexander, who plays Miami-Dade coroner Alexx Woods behind leads David Caruso, Kim Delaney and Emily Procter. "We have to do what we can within the system for as long as we can until we can crack it. Kind of just deal with it, I guess."

Such frustrations have echoed among actors, producers, network executives and critics here during the marathon of news conferences that form the Television Critics Association's annual preview of the fall season.

Race remains a touchy subject in Hollywood. Network executives and producers fear they'll be accused of insensitivity or prejudice in everything from casting to scripting. Actors of color remain convinced enough opportunities don't exist for them. Critics remain skeptical the industry really is committed to change.

During the nearly three-week press tour, race has emerged as a flash point in several areas:

-- CSI: Miami's lack of Latino actors, despite the show being set in a community that is more than 75 percent black and Latino.

-- Fox's decision to schedule its comedy hit The Bernie Mac Show against ABC's Damon Wayans comedy My Wife and Kids at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The move means that the only sitcoms with black stars on the big four networks will air in direct competition.

-- The creation of three shows set in San Francisco -- CBS's Presidio Med, Fox's girls club and ABC's MDs -- with few or no Asians in the core casts, despite taking place in a city where 30 percent of the residents are Asian-American.

-- The WB's decision to feature no shows starring black actors, despite a history of developing black-centered shows such as The Steve Harvey Show, The Jamie Foxx Show and For Your Love. Instead, the network placed more people of color in secondary roles and will offer a sitcom centered on a half-Latino, half-Irish family, Greetings From Tucson.

-- The lack of new series with minorities in lead roles. Four shows among more than 30 new series will feature black or Latino lead characters. (Overall, of about 117 series airing this fall, 12 feature minorities as the lead characters.)

-- The release July 17 of a report card on network TV diversity by advocacy groups representing Asian-American, American Indian and Latino people, concluding that the networks have not significantly improved ethnic diversity onscreen since 1999. That year, glaring inequities prompted the NAACP to join with three other advocacy groups to wring promises of inclusion from the industry.

TV executives say the pace of change is slow but steady. However, advocacy groups and critics fear the networks are slowly backing away from their diversity efforts now that the topic no longer makes headlines.

"The change has been incremental . . . one more Latino here, one more African-American there," said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, one of the three groups that developed the report card. "We're pushing the agenda forward (more rapidly)."

Damon vs. Bernie

When he first heard about it, Damon Wayans thought it was a joke.

Then it was confirmed: Fox had decided to move The Bernie Mac Show, which aired at 9 p.m. Wednesday last season, to 8 Wednesday this fall, the same time slot as Wayans' My Wife and Kids.

To Wayans, that meant one would have to lose.

"Just like when Vibe (a syndicated talk show) and my brother's show (The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show) aired at the same time (in the late '90s) . . . It's the same audience, and they're lying if they say it's not," Wayans said. "Fox was part of that whole (effort) to put diversity on television in prime time. And it was (black artists) that launched the network: shows like Living Single, Martin and In Living Color. We built that network, and they have a responsibility to us."

Wayans hoped to get Mac to join in opposing the move. But staffers at the Fox show saw the move as a network vote of confidence, an opportunity to kick off an important night of programming.

Indeed, some at Fox saw Wayans' protestations as a signal that the former In Living Color star feared competing with an Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning show.

"I have no problem with Fox . . . That was a business decision made by Fox," Mac said during a satellite interview with reporters last week. "I think Damon needs to worry about My Wife and Kids. And let's both give good shows, and in between commercials you flip back to Damon and watch him and then make sure you flip back to me."

Fox executives said there is 25 percent duplication among the series' black viewers.

Their idea is to combat shows such as CBS's Amazing Race and NBC's The West Wing with a night of urban (translation: black- and youth-oriented) programming that will draw young viewers. Mac's show will be followed by a variety half-hour from Cedric the Entertainer (The Steve Harvey Show) and an action show, Fastlane, co-starring comic Bill Bellamy (How to Be a Player).

Viewers with long memories might recall that Fox used this tactic to counter NBC's "Must See TV" powerhouse on Thursday in the '90s, airing Martin Lawrence's Martin, Queen Latifah's Living Single and New York Undercover against Friends and Seinfeld. That move effectively segregated TV audiences along racial lines for years.

"That was the most competitive Thursday night lineup we ever had . . . It's a shame we don't have it now," said Gail Berman, president of entertainment at Fox. "(Last season) I was airing That '70s Show repeats on Wednesdays (at 8 p.m.) and trying to package them like it's a really good idea. We needed a show that could launch that night. Of course, we discussed whether or not (moving Bernie Mac) would split the (viewership) . . . but we just had to bite the bullet and do it."

Also, Cedric the Entertainer's show is up against ABC's The George Lopez Show, one of only two series centered on a Latino family. So although the networks tout the need for diversity, they pit the few series starring people of color against each other.

"I think it stinks," said George Lopez executive producer Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show), who developed the series with movie star Sandra Bullock. "I think it's a very cynical move . . . one of those things where you're hoping to drain off an element of the viewership because you think it's going to be effective. It's not fair to the audience."

Wayans said he has no choice but to fight Mac. "I made the announcement to my writers; we've got to raise the bar . . . it's war," he said. "If we beat them, it will sicken me to my stomach. That's a war I don't want to win. But I have to."

Where are the streets of San Francisco?

It was a question that seemed to fluster ABC's MDs creator Gary Tieche: How real can a medical series set in San Francisco feel if it has one actor of Asian heritage?

"What I tried to do was ground it in reality as much as possible and also . . . not be naive about prime time," said Tieche, who did create a major character of Scottish heritage for the show. "I'm trying not to bury myself. What I'm hoping is that everyone will tune in and watch us, and we'll be such a huge success, I can do whatever I want."

Translation: We'll stick minority actors in supporting roles, but anything more might make the network nervous.

Still, Tieche's fellow executive producer, St. Petersburg native Rene Echevarria (Dark Angel, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), downplayed the notion that executives limit diverse casting.

"The only time I would say that's happened is (when) there is some fear factor . . . They don't want people flipping channels and coming across a frame that doesn't have at least one white person in it," said Echevarria, who is of Cuban heritage. "On Dark Angel, that did happen to us."

Might that thinking explain the lack of Latinos in CSI: Miami or why Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley features no women of color among the three leads in his new series, girls club?

No, Kelley said, offering the standard Hollywood answer to diversity questions: "We were going with the three best actresses . . . and these three happened to get the parts."

At the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Nogales is turning his attention to NBC's Kingpin, a highly anticipated mid season series centered on a Colombian family that dominates the drug trade in South America.

After watching a pilot of the show sent to his group anonymously, Nogales wanted to speak with NBC executives about the stereotypes presented. But the network canceled its meeting with him when the diversity report card was released and NBC earned a D-plus.

"I get the (cancellation) call, and I'm thinking, 'Does this guy realize he needs us more than we need him?' " Nogales said. "That show has about 60 (Latinos) killing each other to become the drug kingpin. It's excellently written, directed and acted . . . The only problem is a lack of balance. And unless they get help, I'll tell you, Latinos everywhere are going to stand up against it."

Series creator David Mills offers a different perspective.

"I worked on The Corner (a drama about the drug trade in Baltimore), and HBO so expected a black backlash that they hired a black scholar, Michael Eric Dyson, to be their flak catcher," he said.

"But the flak never did come. Why? Because good storytelling trumps everything. I would think Hispanic audiences would love this show as much as anybody . . . not only for the amount of (Latino) actors who are getting to showcase their work, but for the story itself. Because, in the end, telling good stories is what it's all about."

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