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‘Tribeca’ Debut Has Makings of a Spinoff

TV or not TV. . . .

THE MAKINGS: It seemed so easy, natural and right--a solid drama about a black family in New York City.

It was just a single hour serving as last week’s impressive debut of Fox TV’s anthology, “Tribeca,” but it was also a disturbing reminder of how the networks almost never present weekly drama series about black family life.

Comedies? Sure--by the barrelful. But somehow the networks have a warped view that serious dramas about black families won’t sell.

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Fox, however, might well take a long second look at that “Tribeca” debut, in which Larry Fishburne starred as an easygoing cop who suddenly must assume responsibility for his slain brother’s family. For this was a story that, while self-contained, also had real series potential, with attractive characters that promised continuing interest.

The debut of “Tribeca,” a series co-produced by Robert De Niro, pulled higher ratings than competing network films in New York, Washington and Miami, and--while typically getting Fox’s smaller overall audience--increased the network’s tune-in by 60% in its time slot.

“Tribeca” has its second outing tonight at 9 with Stephen Lang giving a powerful performance as a proud homeless man seeking a dignified burial at sea for a Marine friend. On the basis of its first two shows, the series is one to keep an eye on.

Ironically, last Tuesday’s debut came the same week that the networks showed advertisers their series in development for next season, and again the pattern was the same--a number of black comedies up for consideration but black family dramas still poor cousins.

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Fox has a possible action drama about a black superhero, “Mantis,” and ABC is considering a drama, “Divas,” about a quartet of black women singers struggling to succeed in the pop world--a fertile premise.

But realistic weekly drama series about hard-working, ordinary black families--or most other minority families, including Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians--remain, for all practical purposes, invisible in television lore.

Since the networks know how the world is changing every day outside their front doors, the only conclusion is that they think mainstream America is bigoted, for there is no shortage of weekly drama series about white families. This is statistical racism, based on fear of ratings.

GAME PLAN: “Brooklyn Bridge” returns April 10--Saturday nights at 9:30--amid general belief that CBS already considers it dead. It is, safe to say, not a great time slot, but CBS at least gives the illusion of trying to see whether a package of nostalgic series will work.

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The premise apparently is that Saturday prime time attracts older viewers who stay at home and that older viewers may respond to such subject material as a Western, baseball and traditional family values--especially since the three shows in the two-hour program block are all set in the good old days.

First comes the surprise hit Western “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Then, on April 10, the TV sitcom version of the film “A League of Their Own"--about women’s baseball in 1943--debuts at 9 p.m. And this will be followed by “Brooklyn Bridge,” with Marion Ross as the matriarch of a 1950s family.

This feels like very tenuous planning. It is like trying to bluff the table with a pair of deuces. Of course, miracles do happen. And if they happen in this case, “Dr. Quinn” will win new respect as a lead-in. If not, memorial services for “Brooklyn Bridge” will be held in late spring.

HEAD COUNT: That James Garner vehicle for HBO, “Barbarians at the Gate"--about the stratospheric bidding war for RJR Nabisco--simply murdered ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the homes that buy the pay-television service.

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The story of the unbelievable big-business fiasco, wittily adapted for the screen by Larry Gelbart, won a 22% share of the audience in HBO households.

Meanwhile, the cable TV universe continues to grow in attractiveness as other channels announce deals involving intriguing films and talents.

The Bravo channel, starting in September, will offer such monthly works as Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho”; “Glengarry Glen Ross,” written by David Mamet, and Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box.”

And the Showtime pay-TV service will launch an original, half-hour, film noir series, “Fallen Angels,” from director Sydney Pollack’s firm. Among those directing the episodes are Steve Soderbergh (“sex, lies and videotape”), Michael Mann, Tom Cruise and Phil Joanou.

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Veteran film director Norman Jewison (“Moonstruck,” “A Soldier’s Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) also has a cable project on tap--producing “Geronimo,” one in a series of TNT dramas about American Indians.

THE LONG VIEW: Very wise of ABC to pick up “Coach” for at least two more seasons. The cheerful and underrated sitcom, starring Craig T. Nelson, has been a ratings killer when paired with “Roseanne” and now with “Home Improvement.”

NBC’s “Wings” is another series with a recent two-season pickup as more and more shows are getting extended orders to give them time to sharpen their work and hold audiences for the embattled networks.

MVP: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Diane English get more publicity, but Matt Williams created TV’s two hottest entertainment series, “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement.”

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CHANNEL SWIM: I can’t remember the last time I tuned in the 11 p.m. news on any station in town because I really wanted to. They’re all just dancing as fast as they can. Nothing more.

MODERN TIMES: Maybe I missed it, but I’d like to see a really major documentary about the history of women TV broadcasters, from the days of such pioneer reporters as Pauline Frederick and Rush Ashton Taylor, right up to date with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and ABC’s Lynn Sherr. I’m interested in the reporters, not the anchors.

FYI: With all the furor in the former Soviet Union, you can get a different perspective on the “Evening News From Moscow,” a half-hour daily broadcast from Russia aired by C-SPAN at 3 p.m. and by C-SPAN2 at 5 p.m.

INSOMNIAC SPECIAL: Ron Howard is interviewed in a two-parter on NBC’s “Later With Bob Costas” following the Letterman show Wednesday and Thursday nights.

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BEING THERE: “Some parents get better children than they deserve."--Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) in “Perry Mason.”

Say good night, Gracie. . . .


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