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Breaking Color Barriers : NBC Continues to Court a Large Audience Long Ignored

Bigots used to call NBC the Negro Broadcasting Co.

It was a badge of honor for the network. For NBC played a historic role as the leader in breaking down barriers against blacks in television.

In the ‘50s, NBC carried “The Nat King Cole Show” for an entire year virtually without sponsors, who feared advertising on a series with a black star.

In the ‘60s, NBC presented Bill Cosby as the first black actor to headline a regular drama series in “I Spy.”

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Also in the ‘60s, NBC broke further ground with the sitcom “Julia,” in which Diahann Carroll starred as a widowed, working black mother.

Previously, stereotypical black series--the comedy “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Beulah,” about a maid--drew criticism for prolonging outdated images and, by inference, racism.

Cut to 1992 and the fall TV schedules announced by the networks in recent weeks.

NBC, as it has through much of TV history--culminating with “The Cosby Show"--remains a leader in attempting weekly series about, or starring, blacks. Four of its five new comedies have strong black presences.

But the new interest in creating black-oriented series--at all the networks--is not a sign of altruism. It’s always been business first in television, but never more than now in regard to black audiences because, according to recent surveys, they are the heaviest viewers.

In short, television is finally doing the right thing--paying attention to the blacks it has often ignored--but for the wrong reason: cold cash rather than social progress.

It’s a cynical turn of events, but at least it opens the door a little more to equality. What is missing, however, is genuine commitment to what TV sorely lacks: solid, realistic dramas about black family life. True progress will be measured by TV’s willingness--or lack of it--to live up to that commitment.

In any case, NBC still can say proudly that bigots probably would not be pleased with its fall schedule.

Among the returning series with black stars, for instance, are “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” with Will Smith, and “A Different World,” the successful spinoff of “The Cosby Show.”

Also returning is one of the finest new series of recent years, “I’ll Fly Away,” in which a brilliant, young actress, Regina Taylor, plays a black housekeeper who begins to find herself and her lifetime goals as she works for a white Southern family during the rise of the civil rights movement in the ‘50s.

The difference between Taylor’s housekeeper role and the stereotypical portrayals of black maids in old films and TV series is a deeply intelligent depiction of social change.

Among its other black stars, NBC also has Richard Brooks, a splendid young actor who plays a prosecutor in “Law & Order,” a series that also ranks among TV’s finest.

And although the series “In the Heat of the Night” will move this fall to CBS, NBC deserves credit for originally airing this police show in which co-star Howard Rollins portrays a solid, married, black family man who is one of the few such role models in television drama.

NBC’s bid for the black audience will be additionally clear in the fall when the network launches its new comedy series. They include Malcolm-Jamal Warner in “Here and Now,” Patti LaBelle in “Out All Night,” Bill Nunn in “Buck and Barry” and Anna Maria Horsford and Ron Glass in “Rhythm and Blues.”

The networks overall, of course, are vastly more populated with black performers than in TV’s earlier, lily-white years. But next to NBC, the Fox Broadcasting Co. seems to be targeting black viewers most clearly.

Fox already has such black series as the wonderfully outrageous comedy revue “In Living Color” and the solid sitcom “Roc.” And among its new series with black performers in the coming season is the comedy “Martin,” with Martin Lawrence as a talk-radio host in Detroit.

Veteran series such as ABC’s “Family Matters” and new entries like CBS’ “Polish Hill,” which co-stars Robin Givens, are other high-profile examples of how TV is trying to attract--and, yes, exploit--black viewers for commercial reasons.

When the Nielsen ratings firm surveyed black TV-watching habits last September, it reported statistics sure to appeal to network sales departments. Nielsen reported that black households watch an average of 69 hours of TV each week, compared to 47 hours for viewers overall.

The heaviest black viewers are teen-agers and women 35 to 64 years old. Prime-time viewing in black homes is also significantly higher than the overall average on Fridays and Saturdays, which may be because of less disposable income for weekend entertainment in economically disadvantaged areas.

The revelation about weekend viewing could, then, be a factor in NBC’s scheduling of such black-oriented series as “Here and Now” and “Out All Night” on Saturday and ABC’s decision to lead off its Friday lineup with “Family Matters.”

The networks, in other words, have discovered that there is viewer gold in areas that formerly were under-represented in the ratings because, among other things, surveyors often were hesitant to go into black urban neighborhoods. Thus, the tastes of black suburbanites may have been given more statistical weight than inner-city viewers.

According to TV industry insiders, former NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, who led the network to six consecutive years of ratings leadership, was one of the first major executives to recognize the significance of black viewing patterns.

One of the key series in NBC’s rise to the top was “The A-Team,” which starred black performer Mr. T. The show’s ratings in a city such as Detroit, with its large black population, were often astronomical.

Solid substantiation of the difference in viewing in black households came recently from the BBDO ad agency.

In a survey that indicated why the hard-pressed television networks are focusing on specific demographic groups for all possible rating benefits, the agency found that the top 10 series in black households--totally different from the favorites of the general population--were:

* “A Different World” (NBC)

* “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” (NBC)

* “The Cosby Show” (NBC)

* “In Living Color” (Fox)

* “Roc” (Fox)

* “Blossom” (NBC)

* “Family Matters” (ABC)

* “Married . . . With Children” (Fox)

* “The Royal Family” (CBS)

* “In the Heat of the Night” (NBC, but moving to CBS)

Missing from this list was every one of the Top 10-rated series for the TV season that ended on April 12:

* “60 Minutes” (CBS)

* “Roseanne” (ABC)

* “Murphy Brown” (CBS)

* “Cheers” (NBC)

* “Home Improvement” (ABC)

* “Designing Women” (CBS)

* “Full House” (ABC)

* “Murder, She Wrote” CBS)

* “Major Dad” (CBS)

* “Coach” (ABC)

Food for thought. And the networks are biting.


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