Bobby Soul was more than just another hyperkinetic, jive-talkin' disc jockey to Veronica Washington. He was the great "black" hope who could save her struggling African-American radio station.
Washington, the fictional owner of the fictional WBLZ in Detroit that is the setting for the new NBC situation comedy "Rhythm & Blues," believed Soul, who had a huge following of black listeners at another station, was the key to boosting WBLZ's floundering ratings. After hearing his tape, she hired him sight unseen.
In the first episode of the series, Washington (Anna Maria Horsford) told her beleaguered staff before Soul arrived: "I got a feeling that the brother who walks through that door is gonna lead us to the promised land!" But Soul (Roger Kabler) turned out not to be a "brother" but rather a white man who had affected a hip urban tone in his act--prompting a reaction of shock and disappointment from his boss.
That same disappointment is also being expressed by media watchdog groups, scholars and others who had once high hopes for a fall television season that was bringing forth an unprecedented number of prime-time series featuring all or predominantly African-American casts. Frustrated by what they called the tradition of stereotypes and buffoonish images that had historically dominated shows with African-Americans, they felt the new entries might mark a new era of honesty and depth in the depiction of contemporary black culture and values.
But judging by some of the early episodes, they already are seeing red over the depiction of blacks this season.
Jannette L. Dates, co-editor of the book "Split Images: African-Americans in the Mass Media," said: "It's just the same old characters we've seen over and over again, ad nauseam. Lots of young people may think it's funny, but these images are with us forever, not only here, but all over the world. People come here from other countries and expect black people to act like they do on TV."
"I wish I could be a little more optimistic, but it just seems like the same old soup warmed over," said Elaine Pounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Black Media Coalition, an organization of industry professionals and others interested in the depiction of African-Americans on TV.
While acknowledging that some of the characters on their shows may appear clownish and one-dimensional at first glance, some producers and creators protest that they are being judged by a higher standard than Anglo shows and argue that their critics need to be patient and allow the programs and characters to evolve.
Rob Edwards, creator and co-executive producer of "Out All Night," said criticism of one character, who was accused of being clownish and woman-crazy in the pilot episode, was premature: "Judging him that way would be like judging the first five minutes of 'The Wizard of Oz' and making up your mind that it was a black-and-white movie set in Kansas."
In addition to "Rhythm & Blues," the new black-oriented shows are:
- "Here and Now" on NBC, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner of "The Cosby Show" as a psychology graduate student who helps run an inner-city Manhattan youth center. The series airs Saturdays at 8 p.m.
- "Out All Night," also on NBC, starring Patti LaBelle as a singer and businesswoman who owns a trendy black club where top names such as Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston perform. A college graduate (Morris Chestnut, from "Boyz N the Hood") helps her manage the club while she tries to manage his life. The series follows "Here and Now" on Saturdays at 8:30.
- "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" on ABC, starring comedian Mark Curry as a substitute teacher who lives with two female roommates, played by Dawnn Lewis and Holly Robinson. The show has been called a black "Three's Company" with dashes of "Head of the Class" and "Welcome Back, Kotter" thrown in for good measure. It airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.
- "Martin" on Fox, starring comedian Martin Lawrence as the host of a Detroit radio talk show on relationships who is more in control on the air than he is with his girlfriend (Tisha Campbell). It airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. against "Rhythm & Blues" in what is unofficially being called the battle of the TV shows about black radio.
Veteran shows featuring mostly African-Americans include NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "A Different World" and "I'll Fly Away," Fox's "In Living Color" and "Roc," and ABC's "Family Matters."
With the five newcomers, 12 shows out of the 74 prime-time, scripted entertainment series on the four networks now feature large black casts. Black performers are also key members of several new drama series, including "Going to Extremes," "Angel Street" and "The Round Table." More programs with other African-Americans are in development, with some already pegged as mid-season replacements.