For weeks now, NBC has been telling anyone who will listen that a popular young rap star, the Fresh Prince--alias Will Smith--is the key to its fate in the new fall season.
Smith is a non-controversial rapper. His upcoming sitcom, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," is straight out of mainstream TV land. It strikes none of the nerve-end chords associated with controversial rap.
But the latest rap furor--the arrest of two members of 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges, plus attempts to make it illegal to sell the group's album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be"--may pose a dilemma for NBC:
Will the heat generated by the rap controversy drive some viewers away from even as innocent a series as "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" because of the angry images of the real-life conflict?
Or could the enormously likable Smith and his series--with its cheerful pilot--actually have a pacifying effect on TV's vast audience and soften attitudes toward rap music overall, despite its extremes? Never underestimate TV's power.
Rap aficionados seem to regard Smith as simply lightweight fun, but such imagery can have huge impact because of TV's reach and, alas, its tendency to dilute harder-edged reality.
"Will Smith is going to come out very strong, and I think people are going to find him very lovable and charming," says Debbie Allen, who directed the "Fresh Prince" pilot, which has won industry admiration. Of the show itself, she acknowledges that "TV is a little bit of fantasy."
But it is no fantasy that a lot is riding on the series for NBC. And as the controversy over 2 Live Crew peaked this week, NBC executives, perhaps edgy, insisted that "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" is not really a rap show at all, even though the network originally announced it as featuring "rap music star the Fresh Prince."
"We're not doing a rap show. We're doing a show that stars Will Smith, who happens to be a rap artist," says Warren Littlefield, executive vice president of prime-time programs for NBC.
"We're not going to label it in any way, shape or form as a rap show," adds Vince Manze, vice president of advertising and marketing for the network.
But the fact is that rap--though of a clearly middle-road mentality--is distinctly a major part of the pilot.
Smith, playing a poor kid from Philadelphia who moves in with rich relatives in Bel Air, instructs the young daughter of the family in the ways of rap and antagonizes her father. At one point, the girl horrifies her parents by saying grace in rap.
In the final scene, however, the father overhears Smith playing classical music on the piano, which seems to be the show's way of making a point.
"As we learn in the first episode," says Allen, "he's a young man who's reaching for the right kind of things."
It's not likely that the battle over rap will turn young viewers away from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." In fact, the odds are that it will only encourage them to turn to the show in greater numbers--and this is the audience that NBC is going after.
But older, more conservative viewers could be turned off if adversarial encounters involving rap continue to make headlines.
This conceivably could prevent "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" from turning into an all-around family hit such as "The Cosby Show." And that could cost NBC some ratings points--and big money.
There's "no doubt," says Manze, that pegging the show's image just right "is a problem for us. There's an upside and a downside. Our feeling is that younger people know him (the Fresh Prince) as a rapper. The downside is that it's a turnoff to a lot of people who think they're going to see rap for half an hour."
To win over older viewers, says Manze, NBC will promote the series "as a breakthrough show with a comic performer named Will Smith who plays a poor person out of his element in the weird world of the very rich."
It doesn't take a purist to recognize that all this seems planets away from the grittier social, political and sexual images of rap. But that's TV. And TV's principal business is not selling entertainment to viewers--but selling viewers to sponsors.
Despite rap's new sitcom face in "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," will there be a negative impact on the show anyway because of the fallout over other acts such as 2 Live Crew?
"No," Allen maintains. "I don't think it'll have any effect. We're talking about apples and oranges here. There are many kinds of music and dance. Paula Abdul and Madonna are both pop artists. But Paula's never put her hand in her crotch (as Madonna did in a recent notorious photograph). It's just a matter of taste.
"There is a validity to what rap artists talk about, and they don't come from the same place. I just heard one of the greatest records I've heard in years, 'We're All in the Same Gang,' and it's by rappers promoting unity among street gangs."
And maybe, suggests Allen, Smith "is not that different. Who's to say? I don't know all the rappers."