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Multicolored TV Cast More Likely to Appeal Than a Single Hue

May 22, 2000|CAMERON TURNER | Cameron Turner is a Monrovia-based freelance journalist who has been writing about minority issues in film and television for 13 years. He can be contacted at

I share Howard Rosenberg's disappointment (May 17) at CBS' failure to pick up "American Family," Gregory Nava's proposed drama series about a multigenerational Latino family living in Los Angeles. It is disgraceful that Latinos, Asians and other nonblack minorities continue to be almost nonexistent on prime-time network television.

But I think Rosenberg's indignation may be misdirected. Racially myopic TV viewers, not the networks, deserve most of the blame for the lack of prime-time dramas centered on people of color.

By criticizing network programmers for what he calls "an antique, wheezy, musty, creaky common wisdom that dramas about people of color automatically repel white audiences," Rosenberg suggests that the public would embrace serious shows about minorities if only they were given the chance. Sadly, the opposite is true. White viewers (who, because of sheer numbers in the U.S. population, are essential to every network series' success) have repeatedly turned away from quality dramas about nonwhites.

CBS relearned that lesson recently with "City of Angels," which, despite being the No. 2 show in black households, hovered near the bottom of the overall ratings. The same thing happened with "Under One Roof," Thomas Carter's acclaimed black family drama starring James Earl Jones, which aired briefly on CBS in 1995.

And the history goes back much further: "Gabriel's Fire" (1990-91), "Gideon Oliver" (1989), "Paris" (1979), "The Lazarus Syndrome" (1979) and "New York Undercover" (1994-98) were all finely crafted, stereotype-busting dramas about African Americans that were never supported by a significant number of white viewers.

Trying to pinpoint why this pattern persists is a thorny exercise. One is tempted to point to age-old attitudes of racial superiority that can exist, in one form or another, even in the hearts and minds of liberal, nonracist whites. But it might not be about all that. Most Americans, people of color as well as whites, live racially isolated lives. We may interact with members of other racial groups at work, school or booster groups for our kids' activities, but our most meaningful personal interactions are usually with people who look like us.

Likewise, when we sit down to watch TV, we seek out shows that we relate to; often that means people who look like us. The demographic breakdown of TV viewing patterns done yearly by the BBDO ad agency has demonstrated that white and black Americans do not favor the same prime-time programs.

That doesn't mean the networks are blameless. But the failure of previous black dramas and the less-than-stellar performance of "City of Angeles" likely made CBS gun-shy about "American Family."

The Eye Network also seems gun-shy about "City of Angels," despite the second season pickup. By scheduling the black hospital drama opposite the NBC powerhouse "Will & Grace," CBS has demonstrated its lack of confidence in the show. Indeed, the decision to renew "City of Angels" may have had more to do with a desire to stay chummy with executive producer Steven Bochco and appease black activists than with faith in a show that, by broadcast television standards, was a flop.

But on a more hopeful note, network dramas with racially integrated ensembles have proved so successful that multiethnic casting has become commonplace in dramatic series. Hit shows like "ER," "The Practice," "Touched by an Angel," "Martial Law," "Third Watch" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" have united viewers while showcasing people of color in a wide variety of roles.

There is still much room for improvement, because most of today's integrated dramas do not have Latinos or Asians in prominent, regular roles. But given the polarization that exists on the audience side of the TV tube, integrated ensemble casting is a more realistic way to increase diversity in prime time than to fight for dramatic series built around one nonwhite group.

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