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Can a 'Different World' Survive This War?


Astoria, N.Y. — NBC'S "A Different World" is playing the waiting game.

"After six years of marriage, we're looking old and tired (to the network)," said Susan Fales, the 30-year-old executive producer and head writer for the show, which has been on hiatus since Jan. 28. "It's time to go to Victoria's Secret and get some lingerie to pique their interest." The series is expected to return later this spring; its fate will be decided May 17, when NBC announces its fall schedule.

Buffeted at the start of this season by its head-to-head competition Thursday nights with "The Simpsons" and then "kicked in the pants" by Fox's "Martin" during its last three months, "A Different World" and its fans are facing the fallout from the first head-to-head competition between two popular shows aiming for the same young, predominantly black, audience.

"The thing selling 'Martin' is that it's a 'couple show,' "Fales recalled network bigwigs telling "A Different World's" producers. "You've got to get more Dwayne and Whitley stuff," referring to two key "World" characters played by Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy.

Frequently pausing with a joyful, light cackle, Fales offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of televisionland during an informal talk and interview at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y.

"What I do find depressing is that the networks are thinking, 'Hey, he'll be big funny, ' " Fales said. "There are so many gifted actors and actresses who are being passed over."

Fales, who grew up on New York's Upper West Side the daughter of actress Josephine Premice and stockbroker Timothy Fales, began her career fresh out of Harvard as a junior writer on "The Cosby Show." She said that the specific effect of this emphasis on comedians could mean less focus on social issues than "A Different World" attempted to address in recent seasons, and even less chance that serious black dramas will be developed.

The pressure on producers to be "big funny" rather than substantial is greater than ever, Fales said, because of efforts by a small group of religious fundamentalists who continue to target prime-time shows that address such issues as teen sexuality, AIDS or racial tensions.

As an example, Fales screened a 1991 episode of "A Different World" in which a semi-regular character announced that she had contracted AIDS. On the same show, Whitley was deciding whether to lose her virginity.

"I got a call from (NBC Entertainment President) Warren Littlefield saying, 'Please don't do this. The sponsors are all going to drop out,' " Fales said. "But we were insistent."

In the end, the episode lost some sponsors. But it was one of the highest-rated episodes of the season.

As a reality check, Fales and other show staffers annually visit Atlanta to interview students at Morehouse and Spelman colleges. And Fales' eight-member writing team, which includes four women and four men, half of them black, which is rare even as blacks make progress in Hollywood--debates everything from plots to dialogue.

"It's not about being black to write black but it's about finding people who have sensitivity to and respect for the culture," she said. The challenge for such shows as "A Different World" is to stay topical, Fales said. "Sometimes I think the (network) attitude is, 'C'mon ladies, let's just get out there and be entertaining. C'mon. You should be happy you're on the air.' "

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