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For Many Black Viewers, 'Seinfeld's' End Is Nonevent

Television: Much of the African American community appears indifferent to the show.

May 12, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone in town is home watching the big series finale of "Seinfeld." So, figure the newlywed couple on ABC's "Dharma & Greg," what better time to be adventurous and have sex in a public place?

But as the San Francisco couple--she's a yoga instructor, he's a U.S. attorney--prepare to get down to business on the steps of the federal courthouse, they are spotted by Greg's African American supervisor. An embarrassed Dharma tells the man that he'd better hurry home so he won't miss the highly touted episode.

"Yeah, right," the boss responds sarcastically, with a roll of his eyes. "My whole family is home watching 'Seinfeld.' "

The "Seinfeld" media hoopla--which includes the "Dharma & Greg" tribute airing Wednesday--may be at full throttle for the conclusion of the comedy that has gained a reputation as a show about nothing. But for many black viewers, the hype really is much ado about nothing.

"Seinfeld" is leaving NBC Thursday as the most popular program on television and a cultural phenomenon, but for a lot of minorities--particularly blacks--"Seinfeld" throughout its nine-year run has been a lot of "yada yada yada."

"In the black community, the finale of 'Seinfeld' is basically a nonevent," said Jannette Dates, dean of the School of Communication at Howard University. "It's clearly a well-written program and is very funny, but it has never really captured black audiences. They're not angry about the show. They're just indifferent."

Radio personality Tom Joyner, host of the syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," which airs locally on urban-flavored KACE-FM (103.9), quipped: "White people seem to just be going crazy about this. Don't get me wrong: I don't hate the show. But if we had a party every time a black show went off the air, there would be a party all the time."

And Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition advocacy group, added, "I never understood what 'Seinfeld' was about. I have always watched television, and with comedies ranging from 'Cheers' to 'Taxi,' I always found something to like and laugh at. But there was nothing about 'Seinfeld' that interested me. It had nothing to do with the reality of Latinos."

But Doug Alligood, a senior vice president at the New York-based advertising agency BBDO Worldwide, said that "Seinfeld" is the second-highest-rated show among Latinos this season. "However, it's not like there's much choice in what to watch among Latinos," he said.

Last week's episode angered some Latinos because it depicted Puerto Ricans trashing Jerry's car after Kramer accidentally set a Puerto Rican flag on fire.

Throughout its run, "Seinfeld" has been a prime example of the widely differing viewing habits of blacks and whites. Despite topping the Nielsen charts among total viewers, "Seinfeld" ranks 50th this season among blacks. Conversely, the top three shows with black audiences this season--Fox's "Between Brothers," "413 Hope St." and "Living Single"--flopped in the overall ratings and have been canceled.

Observers said that the lack of "Seinfeld" fever among blacks is mainly attributable to the almost total absence of minority characters on the New York-based sitcom. Some supporting characters--including an attorney modeled after defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.--have been featured in the last few seasons, but many said the show is still seen as a program that excludes minorities.

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television, said "Seinfeld" is "among those shows which have great appeal for whites but are perceived by blacks as being outside of their experience and their influence. 'Seinfeld' never did much to make an overt connection to blacks."

"It's like this strange vision of urban living," said Jacqueline Stewart, a film studies graduate student at the University of Chicago. "It's like it is with Woody Allen. The main characters don't interact at all with people of color. Black people are really put off by that. Of course, on black shows, there are not a lot of white people. TV tells us that we live in a very segregated society."

Advertising executive Alligood pointed out that the ranking of "Seinfeld" with black viewers this season is an improvement over past seasons, when it didn't even rank in the top 100.

"I think the show improved because it got away from its total white population and its isolation from minorities," he said.

Alligood added that a show's popularity with black viewers is not totally based on the number of blacks in the cast. For instance, he said, CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger," which stars Chuck Norris and has one black supporting cast member (Clarence Gilyard), is the 20th most popular show among black viewers this season.

Though some restaurants, including Planet Hollywood in Beverly Hills and various Jerry's Delis around Los Angeles are hosting viewing parties for the final "Seinfeld" episode Thursday, it will be largely business as usual for TV-equipped eating and drinking establishments that are frequented by African Americans.

"No one here is even remotely interested in 'Seinfeld,' " said Leon Lewis, manager of the Townhouse in Ladera Heights. "I wouldn't say 'no' if they wanted to watch it, but the people who would come in here just aren't interested. Not even close."

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