Race relations are taking a starring role in several new culturally-tinged series this fall. Fox's "K-Ville," ABC's "Cavemen," CBS' "Cane," and the CW's "Aliens in America" and "Life Is Wild" couldn't be more different in incorporating cultural flavor. "Cane" examines the criminal dealings of a loving Cuban family, while "Aliens in America" is a satirical look at the prejudice that greets the arrival of a Pakistani student in a small town. "Life Is Wild" follows a white family that moves to Africa.
And "Cavemen," which premieres tonight, has been labeled by network President Stephen McPherson and ABC's marketing department as a funny commentary about race relations with a "new minority group."
In one respect, the new shows are different from series already on the air, such as "Grey's Anatomy," that take place in a "colorblind" world, in that they will confront race, cultural pride and conflict directly.
But with all five shows, it's not a person of color who will be steering that vision -- as with much of network television, the series have white male show runners.
The lack of minority prominence in the creative process of these new shows illustrates prime-time network TV's continuing uneasiness with embracing diversity, even though some of the most popular series ("Lost," "Heroes") feature diverse ensemble casts, and two of TV's most acclaimed series are run by people of color (Shonda Rhimes of "Grey's Anatomy" and Silvio Horta of "Ugly Betty").
And whether it signals just a coincidence or a setback in network television's avowed commitment to reflecting multiculturalism in front of and behind the camera is uncertain. The forces behind all of the shows other than Fox's "K-Ville," particularly ABC, CBS and their affiliated studios, declined to address race in the new shows and forbade producers from answering questions.
"There's just no upside for us to participate in that discussion," said one executive. Another suggested that issues of creative control, ego and racial sensitivities made the topic more delicate.
Jonathan Lisco, the creator of "K-Ville," a police drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans, said: "There's a real sensitivity about doing the topic of race a disservice. People really go on the defensive."
The potential touchiness of that dynamic was demonstrated last summer at the national gathering of television critics during a news conference for "Cane," which was attended by executive producers Cynthia Cidre and Jonathan Prince and the large cast, which includes Jimmy Smits and Hector Elizondo.
Cidre, who is Cuban, created the series and wrote the pilot, and Prince has been attached to the series from the first pitch meeting. Despite their seemingly equal partnership, it was Prince who dominated the session, even directing which panelist should answer the inquiries. ("Why don't you start, Cynthia? Then Hector.")
At the same gathering, the all-white executive producing team of "Cavemen" and the cast received a withering reception from reporters and critics who challenged them on their qualifications in writing about discrimination, particularly in creating a fictional minority group that seemed to be based on African American stereotypes. (The comedy stars three white actors under a ton of makeup.)
The race issue may be just one of the problems facing "Cavemen," which has been plagued by creative difficulties. The network did not send tonight's episode to critics.
"Cavemen's" difficulties aside, does the absence of minority show runners on the new programs dilute the cultural truth in characters and stories?
"Good writers can always transcend their backgrounds, but we always believe that there's an authenticity that comes into play when writers who have diverse backgrounds are writing those characters of diverse backgrounds," said Kim Myers, director of diversity for the Writers Guild of America, West.
Lisco, who is white, said he understood the dilemma. "I get this question all the time," he said. "Most of the time I'm writing about the human experience, and the race issue is not seminal to the story. When it is, I approach it with great respect." He added that there were black members of the writing staff -- one a writer's assistant -- who provide valuable input on story lines dealing with race.
Myers added that there most likely is a dearth of qualified minority show runners because of a lack of opportunities. Writers of color may get placed on shows as a "diversity" hire but encounter hurdles as they attempt to move up the ranks. A Writers Guild study released earlier this year found that, despite some advances by women and minority writers, white male scribes disproportionately dominate film and TV jobs in Hollywood. Minority writers accounted for fewer than 10% of employed television writers from 1999 to 2005.