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UPN Postpones, Reviews Its 'Desmond Pfeiffer' Pilot

Television: Network responds to protests by African Americans, but one organizer says execs missed the point.

September 30, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Due to pressure from a coalition of African American community leaders angered over the Civil War-era comedy "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," the UPN network has postponed the airing of the pilot episode and will broadcast another installment when the series premieres Monday.

UPN executives said Tuesday they made the switch to show sensitivity to the concerns raised by the Brotherhood Crusade, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP and others over "Desmond Pfeiffer."

The comedy is about a black English nobleman who becomes a butler and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. The show's critics object to setting a comedy during a period when slavery was practiced.

"While we do not believe the series' premise or any of the program episodes are racially insensitive, we respect our African American viewers and will review the pilot episode before putting it on the air," said a statement issued by UPN.

The action is an apparent concession by UPN President Dean Valentine, who had said last week that he had no plans to yank the series and was "deeply puzzled" by the controversy over it. "We have nothing to feel bad about, and we're not going to feel bad about it," Valentine said in an interview last week.

But Tuesday's statement said that "UPN respects and appreciates all our viewers, and we especially wish to respond to feedback from our loyal African American audience."

UPN's decision, however, made the "Desmond Pfeiffer' critics even more determined in their demand that the show be banished from the network's schedule. They said they were moving forward with plans for a protest this morning outside Paramount Studios. (The series is produced by Paramount Network Television, and UPN is partly owned by Paramount.)

"We are not persuaded by their action," said Danny Bakewell Sr., president of the Brotherhood Crusade. "This does not change our resolve. It just amplifies the deceptiveness with which UPN is exploiting this issue of African Americans in slavery."

Bakewell added, "It's clear that they hear us, and they now know they have awakened a sleeping giant. They're now concerned about putting on the pilot, but they are missing the point. We will not allow any comedic characterizations that trivialize our suffering and pain, distorts and exploits our history and denigrates the bones of our ancestors."

Much of the furor surrounding "Desmond Pfeiffer" is over an early version of the pilot, which had a comical scene in which the bodies of two men in England are shown after they have been hung. Their heads are covered, so it is impossible to tell whether the victims are black or white.

Although that scene and another that showed Pfeiffer being transported by ship to the "southernmost part of America, the part where they grow cotton" have already been cut from the version that UPN plans to broadcast, Bakewell has been saying that the show depicts black people being hung for the sake of comedy. Rumors have circulated by word of mouth and on the Internet for months that the show made light of slavery and the lynching of blacks. The producers have disputed those charges, calling the series a satire on the Clinton administration.

In addition to criticizing actor Chi McBride, who plays the title role and is the only black member of the cast, for appearing in the comedy, the protesters say they are particularly dismayed at UPN, which has targeted much of its programming toward a black audience and has a loyal African American viewership.

Instead of the pilot episode, UPN will kick off "Desmond Pfeiffer" Monday with what had been planned as the second episode of the series. In that episode, Lincoln engages in an amorous relationship by telegraph with a mystery woman while Pfeiffer discovers a secret treasure hidden inside the White House by Thomas Jefferson.

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