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TV Adjusts Its Mirror : Reflecting society, race relations are a dominant theme, the result of a growing black audience and new programming strategies

<i> Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer</i>

In the opening scene of “Teech,” a comedy series that debuted on CBS on Wednesday, a music teacher reports for an expected job at a preppy, all-white boys’ school. But because he is black, the headmaster’s secretary assumes he is a workman and tells him to go “around to the back, use the service entrance, don’t walk on the grass, pick the fruit, talk to the students or eat lunch in plain view of anyone.” His response: “Can I plant watermelon seeds on the back forty?”

In “Homefront,” a drama series that begins Tuesday on ABC, a young black man just back from World War II, and a hero to boot, applies for work at the town factory. While whites are being hired for the assembly line, he’s offered a job as janitor. Only behind-the-scenes intervention gets him a line job. In the next episode, a co-worker puts a dead rat in his lunch pail.

The Los Angeles police beating of Rodney G. King, the turmoil in Brooklyn between blacks and Hasidic Jews, the debate over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court--all focused national attention on the state of race relations in the country. Now Americans are about to have the subject confront them almost nightly in their prime-time entertainment. More than ever before, race relations are a dominant theme in the new television season.

Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins team up each week to solve crimes in fictional Sparta, Miss., on NBC’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Fox’s irreverent “In Living Color” skewers black stereotypes and white prejudice. Another Fox show, “True Colors,” is about the merged family of a black dentist and a white kindergarten teacher--or, rather, former teacher: She quit her job last season because of what she perceived as discrimination against her husband. NBC’s Emmy-winning “L.A. Law,” which dealt with racial issues in seven of its 22 episodes last season--including one based on the King controversy--will continue to tackle such themes this season, though in a more personal way.

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Race, perhaps less frequently, also will come up on “Quantum Leap,” “Law & Order,” “A Different World,” “Young Riders” and “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill.”

The season’s new crop of series brings two more black-and-white detective teams: Robert Guillaume and Richard Libertini in the NBC comedy “Pacific Station” and James Earl Jones and Richard Crenna in ABC’s light drama “Pros and Cons.” And on CBS’ “Brooklyn Bridge,” set in 1956 Bensonhurst, a regular character is a black social studies teacher.

More significant are new series on each of the big three networks in which race is a key element of the story:

* In NBC’s “I’ll Fly Away,” set in a suburban town on the cusp of the civil rights era in the late 1950s, Sam Waterston plays Forrest Bedford, a decent, fair-minded white Southern prosecutor, while Regina Taylor portrays Lilly Harper, a black woman of strength and elegant carriage who comes into his home to cook and clean and be surrogate mother to his three children. Although the story centers on the Bedfords, “I’ll Fly Away” (premiering Oct. 7) also takes viewers inside Lilly’s home, where her 6-year-old daughter is tended to by Lilly’s father. Here is a maid who speaks her mind, telling the 15-year-old Bedford son: “This is . . . your house, your things, your family. I’m me. And you don’t see me.”

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* ABC’s “Homefront,” set in a mid-size industrial town in the Midwest, is a drama from the producers of “Knots Landing” about the social upheaval in 1945, focusing on three families: the white Sloans, who own the factory; the white Metcalfs, who work there, and the black Davises, who work for the Sloans as chauffeur-handyman and housekeeper.

* On CBS’ “Teech,” title character Gibson (Phill Lewis), a young, inner-city music teacher from Philadelphia, is intended by the producers as a “role model” and “a stranger in a strange land.” In hiring him, the academy headmaster tells him that he is “only reluctantly conforming to federal (affirmative action) guidelines.” Teech gets the message. “Shoeshine?” he retorts.

What’s happening? Are all these shows coincidence? Is Hollywood trying to demonstrate its political correctness?

To some extent, if one listens to network executives, TV producers and those who study the medium, probably a bit of each. But there is also something else at work: Just as each of the three new series deals with race--and economic class--so do the demographics of the TV audience have something to do with programming.

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“Nothing is coincidental in that industry,” notes Jannette L. Dates, associate dean of communications at Howard University in Washington and co-editor of the 1990 book “Split Image: African-Americans in the Mass Media.” "(Networks) take a temperature of what’s happening. There’s no secret. . . . they see the demographic shifts. So in fact if you are going to include African-Americans (in programming) and have any kind of authenticity, to hide from the race-relations factor really in a way is counterproductive.”

Although blacks make up 12% of the population, according to the 1990 census, their television viewing numbers are considerably larger across the schedule--sometimes constituting more than 20% of a network’s prime-time audience.

A key factor, Dates says, is that “white Americans who have the wherewithal are doing as they have always done, which is to go into the next fad thing. They are going from commercial television to cable and alternative delivery systems, and so the audiences that are left on commercial television include a larger percentage of black people.”

The importance of the black audience to overall TV viewing can be highlighted with a single fact: Effective this fall, Nielsen Media Research, which provides ratings data to networks, stations, cable companies and advertisers, is expanding its monthly “national audience demographic report” specifically to include viewing patterns among black households. A summary of the most recent report on “Television Viewing Among Blacks,” for November, 1990, reveals that black households viewed 69 hours, 48 minutes of TV during the average week that month--48% more than “all other” households, which viewed on average 47 hours, 6 minutes.

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In addition, the average black household, compared to all other households, was found to consist of 3% more women, 9% more working women, 41% more children between the ages of 2 and 17, 10% fewer men, 6% more adults under 50 and 20% fewer adults over 50. (A key demographic that advertisers look for is women who are 18-49.)

“Audience has a lot to do with (programming),” says Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “When you look at what the Nielsen ratings say, that African-Americans watch more and more TV . . . I don’t think it’s coincidence. When the Nielsens speak, TV listens.”

Keenen Ivory Wayans, executive producer and co-star of “In Living Color,” makes a similar point. “The networks recognize there is a very large multiracial audience out there that is not being catered to. So economically it makes sense for them . . . to target that.”

David Poltrack, CBS’ senior vice president for planning and research, confirms that “the preference of the black audience is certainly taken into consideration in programming. They don’t constitute enough percentage of the audience so that mass media can be successful by targeting to them exclusively, but, as has been seen with the large number of successful black-cast shows, the strong support of the black population plus the ability of those shows to cross over and attract significant white audience has brought them to the forefront.”

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For the most part, however, network executives tend to downplay the audience factor.

Charisse McGhee, NBC’s vice president for current drama programs, acknowledges that in drama, “everything has come down to personal relationships, (and) if you’re dealing with personal relationships in anybody’s life, race becomes one of them.”

Talking to Peter Chernin, president of Fox Entertainment Group, one can almost see him shrug over the phone when the subject of demographics comes up. The black audience, he maintains, “is not large enough to make a hit on its own. I don’t think we sit around calculating this on the basis of some manipulation of the audience. I would guess (the other networks) feel the same way. I think we’re all looking for interesting shows.”

“Quite honesty, we thought of this as really doing a family show in South Africa today,” says Joshua Brand, who with partner John Falsey created “I’ll Fly Away” (as they did earlier with “St. Elsewhere,” “A Year in the Life” and “Northern Exposure”).

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“You can’t go into a network,” Brand adds, “and say, ‘I want to do a family show about South Africa.’ They’re going to go, ‘What, are you crazy ?’ So we don’t say that to them, but in effect it’s a similar situation. . . . American society (had been) essentially an apartheid society, and, as in South Africa, there are changes that people are trying to make that should be made. And change is difficult for anyone under the best of circumstances.”

“I’ll Fly Away” focuses on Forrest Bedford and Lilly Harper at a time of intense social as well as personal change: Bedford, with a hint of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” yet as Establishment as his character’s two last names. (As Sam Waterston notes, “That’s one of the frying pans (the producers) put him into; they’ve made him a member of the Establishment with independent thoughts.”) And Lilly, a member of the have-not minority with thoughts equally independent and a growing anger she can’t quite contain, who becomes, says Regina Taylor, “one of the foot soldiers in the civil rights movement.”

Initially, “I’ll Fly Away” was done as a one-hour pilot that Brand says NBC executives showed to affiliate station representatives last spring. He says that when the affiliates were told that NBC was considering taking “Matlock” off and putting “Fly Away” in its place, “the affiliates got upset and they said, ‘ Race , what are you going to do?’; ‘We’re going to get hit over the head’ and ‘I don’t want to turn on my television and hear that stuff again.’ And then (NBC) showed (the pilot) to them, and people loved it. . . .”

“It was important for us,” Brand continues, “not to simply (show) the white people as the sort of Bull Connor oppressors and the black people as passive victims. And we are not trying to tell the history of the civil rights movement. We’re not the people to do that--I’m a white Jewish guy from New York, and he’s (partner Falsey) a white Irish guy from Connecticut. It’s been done--better than we could do it: ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ ”

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“Our job,” he says, “is to make (the series) personal, not make it a polemic, not make it about race. It’s about people .”

“Homefront” began as a novel that Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick, who are married, planned to write during the 1988 Writers Guild strike. “WarBrides” was going to be the title. Her best friend’s mother when Latham was growing up in Conroe, Tex., a tiny town north of Houston, was a Belgian war bride, she recalls, “and I would be over the house every night, asking her mother stories, and she would have bridge parties where all of her friends were war brides.”

But as Latham, Lechowick and research assistant Marcia Green, now associate producer, delved into the period, they found so much they figured it would best be told as a TV series. “Then we started reading about the experience of black soldiers during World War II and what they went through, and all of a sudden our ideas about characters and story expanded.”

“We didn’t head for black soldier reading; we just headed for reading,” notes Lechowick, who grew up in Ohio.

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Their reading brought out the rampant racism and sexism of the period--"the overt, blatant, constant and vocal racism,” he says. And “we may lament current conditions, but we’re not used to major mainstream magazines having grotesquely sexist ads, advice, comics. . . . You don’t have to have any political sensibility to be offended.”

“The word I have heard bandied about this season is nostalgia ,” Latham says. “And nostalgia implies romanticizing of the past. We have no intention of doing that.”

“Return to the old values?” Lechowick scoffs. “My goodness, let’s start listing the old values. Clauses in housing contracts: ‘Will not sell to non-Caucasians, non-Gentile, non-Aryan. No Jews or blacks.’ That’s an old value.”

In the pilot episode of “Teech,” Gibson is put off by Winthrop Academy’s students of privilege, who don’t seem to take education seriously. But he learns that though Winthrop is hardly the same as an inner-city Philadelphia school, where he taught before he was laid off because of budget cuts, its students need him as much as anybody. As conceived by executive producers Norman Steinberg and David Frankel, Teech becomes their problem solver.

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In a later episode, when one of the students is dating a waitress in town, Teech talks to them about making judgments about people who are not like themselves. He asks them where they got their attitudes.

From Winthrop, says one.

One person’s laughter can be another’s stereotype. In this week’s episode, Teech shows a student a lesson in the art of getting one’s own way, using a metaphor his Uncle Isaac--played by blues guitarist B. B. King--had just taught him about slipping a note in here, and sliding one in there. Imitating soul singer James Brown, Teech explains how Brown’s dance style scared certain people, particularly club owners. In the scene, actor Phill Lewis, imitating a club owner, does a thick Yiddish accent.

Lewis, 23, who was born in Uganda, the son of Peace Corps volunteers--his father is now president of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., says he decided to do the line that way because “I needed to make that line funny. In rehearsal, I thought I did a pretty good Jewish imitation, a stereotypical Jewish imitation. I also do stereotypical black imitations on the show.”

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“It was a complete shock to us; we fell down laughing,” Frankel says. “Humor has got to cut every way.”

There is such a thing, he suggests, as being too politically correct.

Opinions vary on how penetrating “I’ll Fly Away,” “Homefront” and “Teech” can be on matters of race. After all, the two dramas are viewed through the prism of the past, and the other series is a sitcom.

“Probably from the perspective of the past, you can deal a little bit more head on,” says Leslie Moonves, president of Lorimar TV, the production company for both “Fly Away” and “Homefront.” “I think people, as long as it’s not smashing them in the face that it’s happening today, they can take a little closer look. And hopefully may translate (that) to what’s happening today.”

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Gary Levine, vice president for dramatic development at ABC, says the network was attracted to “Homefront” because “it takes a lot of the same issues that we are dealing with in 1991 and shows them to us at a time when things were less gray, when the issues were held in a little more stark relief. You can (subconsciously) deal with the issue of racism in modern-day America when you deal with it in 1945. It’s clearer.”

Yet some black media-watchers counter that TV is not showing dramas with the real cutting-edge issues--such as affirmative action.

What’s missing, Wayans says, are shows from “a black perspective where we’re more than just part of the ensemble; we lead the ensemble. Instead of a black guy at a white law firm, I’d like to see a black law firm. Or a precinct in a black neighborhood (with) black police captains. . . . Let’s deal with today. . . . How many housekeepers can I watch without wanting to rip my hair out?”

TV’s track record in dealing with race has left some critics skeptical.

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In “Split Image,” Dates cites “In the Heat of the Night,” which debuted in March, 1988, as the only weekly dramatic program in 40 years of TV “that featured African-Americans, carried a black focus to viewers and had significant impact or received critical acclaim"-- and lasted more than one season.

“If you look at the role of African-Americans on television, basically 97% of these roles are centered in comedy,” says the NAACP’s Evers-Manly, a cousin of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “You don’t see a lot of integration. You miss Thursday-night TV, and how much do you see?” (This season’s Thursday nights include “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World” and “L.A. Law” on NBC, “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” on CBS and “Pros and Cons” on ABC.)

Pluria Marshall, chairman of the Washington-based National Black Media Coalition, says, “The African-American community is very diversified, and we still have too much stereotype. We are the masters of the sitcom circuit, but when it comes to serious programming we always got to be a cop, an ex-con, a pimp or a whore.”

Or a maid?

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Both Regina Taylor on “I’ll Fly Away” and Hattie Winston on “Homefront” indicate that they were a bit apprehensive about playing maids--until they read the scripts and talked to the producers. But they say they also realized that they would be telling the stories of their own mothers--Taylor’s mother, an elementary school teacher in Texas who was nevertheless still seen as hands by white Southerners, and Winston’s mother, a maid in Mississippi. “Were it not for this woman . . . I would not be on this sound stage . . . " Winston says during an interview at Warner Bros.

While some question how much a show about the past can deal with hard-edged issues, Sterling Macer Jr., who plays “Homefront’s” black soldier, counters: “Best way I can sum this up--I have a poster on my wall (with) a quote of Malcolm X: ‘Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.’ ”

Meanwhile, “I’ll Fly Away” star Waterston contends that dramas set in the past can “bring things that feel far away right up to the present. . . . I mean, is the whole question of black-white relations resolved?”

Tom Lutgen of the Times Editorial Library contributed to research on this story.

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