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Where are TV's Obama-like characters?

Some prominent creative forces behind shows that featured black families see a tougher road ahead.

November 30, 2008|Greg Braxton | Braxton is a Times staff writer.

Long before he set out for the White House, Barack Obama sought to adjust the colors on America's TV sets.

Four years ago, fresh off his star-making keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama challenged the television industry to live up to its responsibility as the country's "most powerful media" and accurately reflect the nation's population. "TV ought to reflect the reality of America's diversity and should do so with pride and dignity, not with stereotypes," he told the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. But as Obama prepares to move into the White House in January, he and his family will be hard pressed to find blacks like themselves represented on any of the major networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox.

In fact, not only will they have great difficulty locating any black family in a leading role on the networks, they also will see it's nearly impossible to find a scripted comedy or drama that features a young person of color in a central role.

Although the networks' prime-time slates are packed with more than a dozen comedies and dramas revolving around family life or involve characters who are related (from "Brothers & Sisters," to "Two and a Half Men," to "Dirty Sexy Money"), almost all of them have predominantly white casts. A black family has not anchored a network series since "The Bernie Mac Show" left Fox in 2006.

Whether the presence of a popular African American president and his charismatic family will affect the racial dynamics of prime time is an intriguing question. The subject is an uncomfortable one for the networks, as most high-ranking network executives and diversity heads declined to talk about the issue.

And people in the black creative community disagree about the prospects -- some even saying Obama's presence may actually raise the bar for their work.

The only African American family regularly on prime time network television is on CBS' "The Unit," where Dennis Haysbert (who played a U.S. president on Fox's thriller "24") plays the leader of an elite special ops force. And while an increasing number of blacks and other minorities has scored regular roles on series ("Grey's Anatomy," "Heroes," "Fringe," "Heroes," "Lost"), those performers are largely relegated to supporting or minor roles.

Though the development season is in full gear, there does not appear to be on the horizon a series that would take up the cultural torch of "The Cosby Show," the groundbreaking comedy featuring what conservative commentator Karl Rove on election day called "America's First Family." The only African American family that would anchor an upcoming major series is animated -- "Cleveland," a spinoff of Fox's "Family Guy."

(Two other black family shows are on cable -- ABC Family's acclaimed but struggling "Lincoln Heights" and TBS' "House of Payne," which is popular but blasted by critics who say it contains broad characters and offensive stereotypes.)

Instead of answering inquiries, CBS, ABC and Fox submitted statements declaring their commitment to diversity while pointing out their individual progress.

CBS' chief of diversity, Josie Thomas, would not comment. Thomas is based in New York, while the network's prime-time shows are produced in Los Angeles. She is not involved or consulted on casting decisions.

Other executives point to the ratings failure of series with predominantly minority casts or central characters such as last season's Latino drama "Cane" on CBS, that network's "City of Angels," ABC's "Daybreak," NBC's "Whoopi" and "The Tracy Morgan Show."

TV historian Tim Brooks, who co-wrote "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," said: "Audiences can relate to diversity, but it's still difficult for families in the suburbs to immerse themselves in that world. TV is still struggling with dramas with a black setting."

Still, Paula Madison, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBC Universal, said the landscape of television is likely to undergo a dynamic change: "Obama in the White House will expand and broaden the conversation about diversity in ways we don't even recognize. I see him as an African American who is more global in perspective and experience. His experience is different than most African Americans, and that will force a different kind of conversation."

Some prominent African American creative forces behind comedies that featured black families see a tougher road ahead. They say Obama's presidency may present even stiffer challenges for the black creative community.

Ali LeRoi, executive producer of the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris," about a black family in the 1980s, said that though family shows inspired by the comedy of Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Bernie Mac and others have been mainstream hits, they're seen as "anomalies" by network executives.

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