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‘Single’ Looks for a Little Help Against ‘Friends’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s those billboards on Barham Boulevard outside Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank that really get to Queen Latifah as she’s driving to work.

One of the billboards shows a full view of the cast members of “Friends,” the high-rated Thursday night comedy on NBC about six men and women living and working in New York, all looking down at the passing cars with a confident gaze.

Next to that billboard is another one with several much smaller pictures of other Warner Bros. shows placed against a backdrop of blue sky--including one, barely visible from the street, of the cast of “Living Single,” the Thursday night comedy on Fox about six men and women living and working in New York.

Latifah, one of the stars of “Living Single,” said, “It just pisses me off every time I see that ‘Friends’ billboard and the little piece of our billboard. I mean, how much more of a push do they need?”

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Judging from the consistently high ratings, the onslaught of gossip and national magazine covers, the mountains of show-related merchandise, highly publicized episodes with major commercial tie-ins and contests where viewers guess which cast member will drink the diet beverage, it’s clear that “Friends” is getting by with more than a little help from NBC, Warner Bros. and the entertainment media.

But while the cast of “Friends” cavort each week to the sound of their hit theme song, “I’ll Be There for You,” most of the “Living Single” cast and Yvette Lee Bowser, the show’s creator and executive producer, are singing a much different tune.

Bowser and the female cast members--Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields Freeman and Erika Alexander--claim that Fox and Warner Bros. have not been there for “Living Single.”

“It’s disappointing that we have never gotten that kind of push that ‘Friends’ has had,” said Bowser, one of the television industry’s few black female producers. “I have issues with the studio and the network over the promotion of this show.”

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Bowser and her four actresses said they are not putting down “Friends” and that they find it to be a quality show. “When I watch it, I laugh,” Coles said. “It’s very well done.” They simply believe that if “Living Single” were given a similar sort of push, it would be doing better in the ratings.

In the ratings this season, “Friends” is ranked No. 3 out of 114 series that have been on the four major broadcast networks, while “Living Single” ranks 85th among all viewers.

“Living Single,” however, ranks among the most popular series with black, Latino and teen audiences, Bowser said. But Fox and Warner Bros. have put little energy into supporting the show, expanding its viewer base or catering to its current fans, she contended. The fact that Fox moved “Living Single” from last season’s comfortable Sunday night slot to a head-to-head losing battle with “Friends” has caused further distress on the series.

Bowser added that the difference in attention both shows receive is especially troubling because “you can’t deny the basic similarities between the two shows. And ‘Living Single’ was on the air first.”

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Added Alexander, employing a term regularly used in rap music to describe a recycled tune: “ ‘Friends’ is a really good sample of ‘Living Single.’ ”

Both comedies feature attractive, young adult male and female characters who love to hang out together. Both are set in New York. Sex and the search for true love are dominant themes in both shows. There is or has been sexual tension within the groups of characters on both shows that has boiled over at times, more often on “Living Single.”

The most obvious difference is in the composition of the ensembles. “Living Single” has an all-black cast. “Friends” has an all-white cast.

“Fox takes our audience for granted,” Bowser said. “They feel our core audience is already there. We’ve been renewed for two seasons, and we’re definitely going into syndication, so it’s like they don’t have to worry about us. It’s unfortunate. My major problem is with promotion at the network level.”

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Bowser and cast members pointed out that while it’s impossible to walk into a bookstore or gift shop without bumping into “Friends” cookbooks, coffee mugs, CDs, hats, T-shirts and calendars, “Living Single” merchandise is not available. The show has no major promotions or commercial tie-ins, Bowser said.

Executives at Warner Bros. denied that “Living Single” was getting the cold shoulder, saying they felt the show was one of the best on television. Fox declined to comment.

David Janollari, executive vice president of creative affairs for Warner Bros. Television, said he was distressed about the charges by Bowser and the actresses. Janollari, who oversaw the development of both series, denied there was a great deal of similarity between them.

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“Both shows have different tones and different attitudes, and are about different things,” he said. “I think one of the main reasons this is in everyone’s face now is that the shows are on against each other. I wish ‘Living Single’ was not scheduled against ‘Friends.’ It’s one of the best shows and one of the most unique voices on television.”

But he added, “ ‘Friends,’ for whatever reason, has become a national phenomena, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the last decade. Naturally, in a case like that, the merchandising soars. That comes out of the show becoming a mega-hit. It doesn’t work in reverse. ‘Living Single’ was a very special and important show when we launched it. I wish it had become as much of a mega-hit as ‘Friends.’ If we felt there were merchandising opportunities, we would sure exploit them.”

“Living Single” was originally developed as a vehicle for Queen Latifah and Coles, “and what happened in the casting was that it emerged as an ensemble of six people,” Janollari said. “ ‘Friends’ began life as a show that would center on two men and two women, with one other man and woman as supporting characters.”

There are stylistic differences between the two shows as well. “Living Single” was developed as a hipper, edgier show for the younger Fox audience while “Friends” is aimed toward the more leisurely “Seinfeld” audience. “Friends” has three stories running together in every episode and is filmed like a movie with more sets and faster pacing, Janollari said.

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Despite their frustration, the “Living Single” principals said they’ve also learned to laugh about being in the shadow of their NBC counterpoint.

“But the minute they start referring to us as ‘Black Friends,’ that’s when I’ll go off,” actress Freeman joked. “It’s better to call them the ‘White Living Single.’ ”

Bowser noted that preliminary plans are underway for a “Living Single” album. “The network has started to do a little more in the last few weeks. I just hope it isn’t too little, too late.”


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