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CBS to Seek Meeting With NAACP

July 26, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While defending his network's record in terms of minority representation in prime time, CBS Television President Leslie Moonves acknowledged Sunday some legitimacy to criticism voiced by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and said he is seeking a meeting to discuss the issue with the group's president, Kweisi Mfume, in the next month.

Moonves made his remarks to a gathering of TV reporters in Pasadena, where the dominant topic has been the major networks' perceived shortage of minorities in new prime-time fare--an issue highlighted by Mfume's accusation two weeks ago that the networks have engaged in "a virtual whitewash" by including so few minorities in their new series.

"I don't like it when people lump the television business in one large basket," Moonves said, contending that CBS "stands alone as the No. 1 network, aware of their responsibility in this area." Despite few minorities in CBS' six new fall shows, he pointed to existing CBS series starring Bill Cosby, Della Reese, Arsenio Hall, Cheech Marin and Sammo Hung, as well as numerous made-for-TV movies last season that have featured African Americans. In addition, CBS will introduce a new drama with a mostly minority cast from producer Steven Bochco, "City of Angels," early next year.

Moonves also cited minorities who play key roles on CBS outside prime time, such as Bryant Gumbel--who takes over in November as host of the network's long-languishing morning show--and his brother Greg Gumbel, who heads CBS' NFL football coverage.

The critics' persistent focus on race has siphoned attention from another much-debated issue--namely, what role media violence plays in societal violence. CBS was drawn into that discourse this spring when Moonves stated that a series about an undercover cop infiltrating the Mafia, "Falcone," didn't make the network's fall schedule in part due to concerns about televised violence in the wake of school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

CBS subsequently ordered "Falcone" as a midseason backup, though Moonves reiterated that violence in the pilot episode will be toned down. Moonves added that the success of Home Box Office's "The Sopranos," which centers on a mob family, "certainly influenced our desire to put this show on the air." Beyond securing more Emmy nominations than any other program this year, "Sopranos" was voted by TV critics over the weekend as the year's top program.

CBS also announced it has ordered another midseason backup series, "Grapevine," which, in an unusual move, is a new version of a failed comedy the network aired in 1992. The network confirmed reports that it is in discussions to develop a show starring Ellen DeGeneres as the host of a fictitious variety show--her first TV project since her eponymous ABC comedy ended last year.

CBS, which televises the Grammys, has also scored a coup by landing the first prime-time special showcasing "Livin' La Vida Loca" Latin pop star Ricky Martin, to air in November. The network is also planning its second Celine Dion special for Thanksgiving night and a special starring country singer Shania Twain next year.

Moonves maintained CBS will turn a profit on its network operation this year, something the company did not achieve in 1998.

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