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Black, White & 'Blues' : NBC's 'Rhythm' Revamps Its Original Concept

February 11, 1993|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The creator of NBC's "Rhythm & Blues" has put the show's soul on ice.

Executive producer Jordan Moffet said he felt shocked and stung last fall by critics and viewers who found the first-year series' premise--a white disc jockey hired to save a struggling African-American radio station--racist and insulting. His woes increased when NBC yanked the comedy from its schedule last October due to poor ratings.

Like a radio station manager trying out a new format to woo listeners, Moffet has revamped the series that revolves around the fictional WBLZ in Detroit. When "Rhythm & Blues" returns to the NBC lineup Friday at 8:30 p.m., it will have a "politically correct," colorblind premise, which Moffet hopes will bring back viewers turned off by the original "high concept" of reverse discrimination.

"Believe me, my intentions were pure when I created the show," Moffet said this week in an interview. "But people's perceptions were different than what I expected, so I've adapted it. I've reacted to what the press had to say. In a lot of instances, they were right."

Gone is the racially tinged animosity of the African-American staff toward white disc jockey Bobby Soul (Roger Kabler). Gone are the insults such as "Opie" and "Wonder Bread." Gone are any references to race or cultural differences. "Rhythm & Blues" is now a traditional ensemble comedy in the spirit of "WKRP in Cincinnati," in which everyone basically gets along.

"Now it's about characters, not concept," said Moffet, who is white. "We were going to evolve into that anyway. We have a terrific, great ensemble what works well without any high concept."

Still, Moffet is upset about the furor over the first episodes of "Rhythm & Blues."

"I understand the criticism, but it was overblown in context," he said. "It was unfairly characterized as racist. The show was a positive portrayal of minorities in the workplace. It showed a black female running a radio station. The show wasn't reviewed as being funny or unfunny. It was more of a political matter."

"Rhythm & Blues" was the most controversial among the unprecedented number of shows premiering last fall that featured all or predominantly African-American casts. NBC's "Out All Night" and the canceled "Here and Now," ABC's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and Fox's "Martin" were also attacked by educators and critics for what they called a perpetuation of black stereotypes, but "Rhythm & Blues" was singled out as being the most offensive.

The first installment showed how Soul was hired by station owner Veronica Washington (Anna Maria Horsford), who was unaware he was white. Soul walked into the station and bellowed, "What up, Detroit!" to the horrified staff. Washington lamented, "I can't believe I hired a white man," and spent much of the episode trying to fire him.

When Soul got into the studio, he screamed "Hey!" into the microphone while declaring he was "throwin' it down and pickin' it right back up." The listening audience phoned in their approval of the new jock, and Soul was allowed to stay on, even though some staff members, especially Jammin (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) continued to resent him.

Race also figured prominently in other episodes. In one, the station's program director, Colette Hawkins (Vanessa Bell Calloway), quit angrily when Washington refused to let her play a popular black record that praised the virtues of female rear ends. She temporarily defected to a white radio station, where the staff, like the music, was cheerful and bland.

Critics knocked the series concept, saying it was about a white man who saves a black radio station. White critics also said a show built around a white being the butt of black jokes was no more appropriate than a show built around a black being the butt of white jokes.

They also denounced Kabler's antics. "Bobby Soul makes 'The Fresh Prince' look like George Bush," said one critic.

Moffet admitted that audiences and critics were clearly uncomfortable with the concept. "When we were on hiatus, we screened the show for test audiences, black and white," he said. "They liked the characters, but black and white audiences didn't like the racial jokes and the polarity. When we would shoot the episodes and one of the characters would call Bobby 'Wonder Bread,' the audience didn't laugh. They thought the characters were picking on him, and felt sorry for him."

The displeasure was reflected in the ratings. Viewership dropped 25% from the first episode to the second. The decline caught him off-guard. He said it had been NBC's highest-testing pilot of the new season. "I thought people would get the joke (about reverse discrimination)," he said.

Ken Horton, senior vice president of current programming for Twentieth Television, the producers of "Rhythm & Blues," said that the political and social climate following the Rodney G. King beating and the civil unrest in Los Angeles may have played a part in the audience's disapproval of the concept.

"Sensitivity was heightened," Horton said. "This, obviously, is not a reality-based show, but given the climate that existed, it was hard for people to see it as just a good time."

Another problem was differing visions between Twentieth and NBC on the show's direction. Horton said Twentieth always saw the show as an ensemble comedy, but that NBC wanted to showcase Kabler, a stand-up comic who does impressions.

"NBC saw Kabler as the break-out star, and they pushed for him to be more out front," he said. "He's a talented comedian and we also wanted to showcase him, but not at the expense of the ensemble. We think we're doing a better job now at servicing him."

Moffet said he hoped audiences would accept the new version: "I just think it would be a shame if people didn't give us another chance. That's all we want."

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