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'Desmond Pfeiffer' Is Deep-Sixed

Television The controversial UPN series, which sought to find humor in the era of Lincoln and slavery, is canceled.

November 07, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," the controversial UPN situation comedy about a black butler and advisor in the Lincoln White House that drew the wrath of several African American groups because of its references to slavery, has been canceled.

Although officials at UPN and Paramount Network Television, which produced the comedy, declined official comment Friday about the decision, executives privately downplayed the furor around the show as a factor, citing instead its chilly reception from viewers. "Desmond Pfeiffer" ranks 133rd out of 135 prime-time series on the six networks this season, averaging 1.8 million viewers a week.

"It's bad ratings, nothing more," said one insider.

Nevertheless, opponents of the program claimed victory in their efforts to get the show off the air.

"This is truly time to celebrate," said Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bake-well, who had spearheaded a community protest against the series, saying it made light of slavery and was insulting to blacks.

Said Bakewell: "This is a tremendous victory for African Americans and other good, decent people who supported our rallying cry that slavery is not funny. UPN needed to understand that we were very passionate about this, and how their arrogance awakened the sleeping giant."

The show premiered Oct. 5 and had its last airing on Oct. 19. UPN pulled it off the schedule before the November ratings sweeps, even though production continued and executives said at the time that it would return.

"The coalition of people who protested this program had a lot to do with it being pulled, but UPN will never acknowledge it," said Billie Greene, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP.

Greene and Bakewell also credited several companies that they said had pulled their advertising support from the show because of the continuing protest.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who had called for an investigation into the series by the city's Human Relations Commission because he felt the show would promote racial discord, said, "Its demise was expected, if not anticipated. I'm glad it's behind us."

"Desmond Pfeiffer" was just one of the series clouding UPN's schedule this season. The network has been struggling with poor ratings across the board, down more than 40% from the same period a year ago. UPN already had canceled another freshman series, "Mercy Point."

But "Desmond Pfeiffer" proved to be the biggest blemish on the network's slate. The controversy made it perhaps the most-talked about show of the new season yet viewers greeted it with indifference. In its second and third weeks, the comedy fell off a combined 25% in audience from its Oct. 5 premiere.

"Desmond Pfeiffer" depicted the fictional title character as the most intelligent and articulate member of the Lincoln administration. Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were portrayed as sex-crazed bumblers. The show's producers had maintained that they were using the historical setting as a satire that was mostly aimed at the current White House sexual scandals.

Much of the debate was over an early version of the pilot, which had a scene set in England in which the bodies of two men were shown after they had been hanged. Their heads were covered so it was impossible to tell their race.

Although that scene and another that showed Pfeiffer being transported against his will to the "southernmost part of America, the part where they grow cotton" were cut before the protest erupted, Bakewell and others complained they were indicative of the producers' intentions to make light of slavery.

Now that "Desmond Pfeiffer" is over, Greene said she and Bakewell hope to talk with UPN executives about planning "positive programming" for African Americans.

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