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NBC Says It Is Focused on Diversity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC executives admitted Thursday they have not made enough progress on racial diversity in their casting but also urged television’s critics to focus on quality, and not just quantity, when assessing minority roles in prime time.

Speaking at the twice-annual gathering of TV critics in Pasadena, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa--who specifically cited a desire to be more diverse when he addressed the same group in January--acknowledged that public pressure from critics and the NAACP has focused the network’s attention on the issue.

Still, Sassa suggested that people of color not only want to see characters who look like themselves on the air but role models as well, from doctors on “ER” to the paramedics and police in NBC’s new drama “Third Watch.” “Let’s not get caught up in the numbers,” he said. “It’s about the quality of what we do.”

Sassa added that networks do have a strong economic incentive to attract minority audiences, since they generally make most of their profits from the TV stations they own in large cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where minorities are disproportionately represented.

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“It makes good business sense to try to reach these minority groups in order to get bigger audiences,” he said.

NBC announced that it’s developing two new series that would feature minority performers, including a comedy from “In Living Color” creator Keenen Ivory Wayans tentatively titled “Not the Bradys,” about a blended family--a la “The Brady Bunch"--where the husband is black and the wife is white. “Living Single” producer Yvette Lee Bowser is also working on an NBC sitcom that could premiere next year, in addition to the drama she’s developing for the WB.

NBC has added a few minorities to new and returning shows, such as having Michael Michele--an actress featured last season on the canceled “Homicide"--segue to “ER.” The changes are part of a sweeping series of additions to existing programs, from installing a new lead on “Profiler” to overhauling the casts and premises of the lightly regarded comedies “Suddenly Susan,” “Veronica’s Closet” and “Jesse.”

NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier said it’s easier to tinker with an established program than starting from scratch with a new concept. “It’s pretty common to ‘morph’ a show toward what’s working,” he said.

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NBC announced plans to premiere all series, new and returning, the week of Sept. 20, when the next TV season officially begins. The lone exception is “ER,” as the network will use its time slot to introduce “Third Watch"--a drama from “ER’s” executive producer, John Wells--before continuing the two-part story line in the show’s regular Sunday time period.

NBC officials said they are not overly concerned about a ratings decline for NBC’s dominant Thursday night lineup or new competition those programs will face, including Fox’s animated comedy “Family Guy” and a wrestling show on UPN--both placed there to siphon away teens and male viewers. Sassa pointed out that every program competing against NBC on Thursays in the fall, other than CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder,” is either new or shifting into a new time slot.

Still up in the air, meanwhile, is the long-term future of NBC’s key lead-off show, “Friends.” Reports have indicated the network is currently trying to negotiate a deal that would extend the series beyond next season.


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