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A White, White World on TV’s Fall Schedule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new prime-time television season has been unveiled, and guess who’s not coming to dinner this fall.

Of the 26 new comedies and dramas premiering on the major broadcast networks--CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox--not one features a minority in a leading role. Even secondary minority characters on these sitcoms and dramas are sparse, turning the TV lineup into a nearly all-white landscape.

There are few blacks in supporting roles on the shows, and Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups are virtually invisible. And even Fox, a network that grew to prominence on the strength of shows targeted for and featuring blacks, may have only one regular black character on its entire schedule this fall.

The lack of minority characters has sent a shudder through an industry that has prided itself on being politically enlightened and progressive. Further, it is in direct contravention of network executives’ repeated pledges to increase diversity in their shows.

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Tom Nunan, entertainment president of sixth-ranked UPN, whose edgier programming strategy includes several shows featuring minorities in leading and supporting roles, said the lack of diversity on the major networks has been obvious for some time but is particularly evident in the new crop of prime-time series.

“It was really glaring at the upfronts,” said Nunan, referring to the networks’ announcement of the fall prime-time series lineup to advertisers last week in New York. Advertisers, in turn, will now decide how and where to spend roughly $6.5 billion to buy advertising time in advance of the season, which begins in mid-September. “It was a shortsighted approach that they took. When you realize how valuable the African American audience can be, and also any minority audience, [inclusion] shows respect to all Americans, not just one demographic group.”

Among several high-profile shows with all-white casts are ABC’s “Wasteland,” about six “twentysomethings” living in New York City and dealing with life after college; NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” which features a group of teens attending a suburban high school in 1980; CBS’ “Love or Money,” a comedy about romance in an upscale New York City apartment building; Fox’s “Manchester Prep,” set at a prestigious New York prep school; and NBC’s “Cold Feet,” about three couples in various and differing stages of relationships.

At least one high-ranking studio executive, who did not want to be identified, expressed dismay about the homogeneity of next season’s schedule, especially in regard to race: “It’s an awfully white world on television.”

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Doug Alligood, senior vice president of special markets for the New York-based advertising firm BBDO Worldwide, charged that the networks are operating in a “nether world” that is willfully ignorant of the growing and changing cultural landscape of the country.

“In the battle against declining ratings, the networks seem to be oblivious to demographic changes and the diversity in population,” said Alligood. “They just seem to be operating in their own world. They’re trying to revitalize something that doesn’t exist anymore. There was a real buzz after the upfronts, not only from blacks but from whites, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

In 1997, former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield ordered producers of all pilot episodes to include at least one minority in the regular casts, adding that some producers resisted but relented because NBC would have final say in whether a show made the schedule.

ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses told television reporters last year that “I think all the networks are working on” increasing diversity. “I think we’re always looking to make the ensembles of our shows as eclectic as we can.”

And NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa said earlier this year after being hired at the network that NBC was committed to multiculturalism: “We need to make sure the shows we have on accurately represent the people viewing. . . . People like to see people like themselves on the air.”

But Tarses admitted this week that the new ABC schedule is woefully lacking in diversity and that she is looking to add more black and Latino characters to new series. And Sassa, who is a third-generation Japanese American, said in an interview that, although he was pleased with some shows, “there are others where we’re not comfortable with where we are.”

When pressed for specifics about how increased diversity would be achieved, Tarses declined, saying: “Our intention is to take aggressive steps in that area. I know what we need to do, but I don’t want to have expectations in certain situations.”

Doug Herzog, president of Fox Entertainment, downplayed the significance of the absence of series featuring minorities on the network, including his decision to temporarily bench “The PJs.” The African American animated series co-created by Eddie Murphy was both critically acclaimed and was considered a moderate hit with a loyal viewership. Herzog says he’s committed to returning the comedy to the schedule midseason.

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“I would love to see diversity on the network, and I would love to have a four-year crack to deal with that,” said Herzog, who joined Fox earlier this year after running Comedy Central. “But today, all I want is the best show on the air.”

Several network chiefs said their efforts to include more minorities in their shows often clashed with securing the best creative choice for a particular role.

Said one insider about one of the new dramas that feature an all-white cast: “We really tried to include more minorities, and we tried them out in the parts, but there were cases when the person for the part was not a minority. I would tell the producer, ‘I know who I want for the part, but I know who would be best for the role.’ ”

Neal H. Moritz, executive producer of “Manchester Prep,” about a school on the upper East Side of New York, said of casting for the drama: “Whether or not to cast a minority in the show was never a conscious decision. We look at who fits the role the best for the story we’re trying to tell. In future episodes, I’m sure the cast will be integrated.”

Moritz pointed out that another show he is producing for UPN, “Shasta McNasty,” has a black lead character.

Tarses said the network was aware early in the casting process for pilots (the first episode of a proposed TV series) that the projects did not have enough multiculturalism: “We wanted to have more minorities within our ensembles, but for a myriad of reasons, we were not able to accomplish that. We made the creative decisions that made the most sense at the time for the pilots.”

Still, the inability of the networks and studios to pull from the talent pool of minorities was a phenomenon that UPN’s Nunan found mystifying, particularly given the fact that his network was able to integrate the casts on most of their shows.

“It’s really not that difficult to work it out the right way,” said Nunan. “It’s really done rather effortlessly. You just look at the best chemistry and the best actors. It’s a natural instinct for us. And it can work out to everyone’s benefit.”

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The absence of diversity this season is also puzzling in the light of the success of several hit or acclaimed dramas such as “Law & Order,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide: Life On The Street,” and “Chicago Hope” which have minorities in prominent and critical roles.

CBS President Leslie Moonves said that there were a number of shows featuring minorities that didn’t make it on the fall schedules. However, he pointed to CBS’ midseason medical drama from acclaimed producer Steven Bochco that will have a 75% minority cast.

Still, executives in the advertising community said that despite the rhetoric and commitments toward diversity, this year’s trend of exclusion is likely to continue.

One prominent ad buyer who declined to be identified said that the major networks really have no financial incentive to have more diversity. “They are reaching the minority audience no matter what, so they don’t really worry about trying to put more minorities on the shows,” said the executive.

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Times staff writer Brian Lowry contributed to this story.


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