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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TELEVISION : Don't Blame Fox TV for Trying to Reach Out

October 17, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Rev. Jesse Jackson last month publicly excoriated television for its lack of cultural diversity, threatening the networks with viewer boycotts if they did not end their "institutional racism." Uh, did he say boycotts?

Although most minority group leaders have difficulty denting television's thick corporate curtain, Jackson's rhetoric appears to have a penetrating resonance. Especially when he deploys the feared "B" word, warning of punitive measures to be organized by the newly formed Rainbow Coalition Commission on Fairness in the Media. And especially when his words are followed up by a personal chat.

For example, is Jackson the super-hero who came to the rescue of "M.A.N.T.I.S."?

On Thursday, Fox announced it was ordering nine additional episodes of "M.A.N.T.I.S.," its new black super-hero series whose ratings are a tiny blip near the bottom of prime time.

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The announcement came only three days after Jackson had met privately with Fox executives.

A Fox spokesman denied Friday that pressure from Jackson influenced its decision to keep "M.A.N.T.I.S.," which earlier had been faulted in some circles for cutting back on its black characters after the airing of its pilot. Despite overall dismal ratings, "M.A.N.T.I.S." has still outdrawn its Friday night competitors in male viewers, Fox insisted, and that demographic oddity was its reason for commissioning more episodes. "Creatively, this is a show the network believes in," a Fox spokesman added.

If so, the proximity of Jackson's meeting with Fox is a striking coincidence.

You'd get the impression from all of this that Fox is the network most responsible for barring black programs from prime time. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Yet it wasn't CBS that Jackson and other black leaders--including the Congressional Black Caucus--had earlier jumped on for dropping four series with predominantly black casts after last season. You can't cancel what you don't have, and CBS had no African American series (excluding "In the Heat of the Night," a drama with a black co-star). It still doesn't have any, although one is scheduled to be created for possible debut in early 1995, and the network says it has other black series in development. At the moment, the closest thing to a prime-time black star on CBS is Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes."

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It also wasn't NBC that Jackson and the others slammed for those black-series cancellations. It had only one black series last season (not counting "Getting By," whose co-star was black). With this season's addition of "The Cosby Mysteries," NBC now has two (excluding the new "Sweet Justice," whose black co-protagonist exists mostly amid whites).

It also wasn't ABC, which last season had three series with predominantly black casts. It still does, after replacing two it canceled with another pair of black comedies, one of them ("On Our Own") with ratings so low that death appears unavoidable (barring a visit to ABC from Jackson).

No, although other networks have also felt the sting of his criticism, the network that Jackson singled out for its cancellations was Fox, the network that has gone out of its way to design programs attractive to African American viewers. Fox began last season with six black series (plus the since-canceled "Bakersfield, P.D.," whose central character was black). After dropping four because of low ratings, Fox is left with two--"Martin" and "Living Single"--plus a couple of series with black co-stars in "New York Undercover" and "M.A.N.T.I.S."

The irony--and injustice--of Fox being criticized in this instance is that the only reason it was able to cancel so many black series was that it had them in the first place--including the risk-taking "South Central," a series that CBS developed but decided not to air.

The applicable baseball analogy is a wide-ranging fielder who gets an error for bobbling a ball that lesser fielders would not even have reached. Hence, they get no errors.

It's curious that a network gets good P.R. for putting on black shows, bad P.R. for removing them--as if their racial makeup alone should guarantee them immortality, even though every series ultimately leaves the air.

In fact, quantity should be less an issue here than the character and texture of black series, with none of the present group being dramas that deploy African Americans in the kind of conventional family settings in which whites are routinely depicted.

That's hardly headline news. One of TV's biggest disgraces is that white programmers rarely extend the airwaves to black drama series and--apparently because no one as persuasive as Jackson has lobbied TV specifically on behalf of other minority populations--even less rarely to Latino or Asian series of any stripe.

Asian Americans are currently represented only in ABC's "All American Girl"; the situation with regard to Latinos may improve, at least in terms of comedy, with the arrival later this season of "House of Buggin'," a Fox series being touted as a sort of Latino "In Living Color."

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ABC, CBS and Fox say they are developing comedies and dramas with predominantly African American or Latino casts. The road from development to actual production is full of potholes, however, and few such ventures ever become series. A better bet is "Under One Roof," a worthy black family drama that has received a six-episode order from CBS with a possible premiere date in March, according to executive producer Thomas Carter.

Carter is also creating a two-hour pilot for "Divas," a possible black drama series for Fox. "Divas" traces the activities of four African American entertainers and their manager.

But if it does get on the air, and is subsequently canceled because of low ratings, Fox may get an earful from Jesse Jackson.

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