Though it's still months before "City of Angels" hits prime time, CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, legendary producer Steven Bochco and the creative team behind the drama series about an inner-city hospital have gone on the offensive in hopes of reversing the jinx: For years, mainstream audiences have turned off network dramas built around predominantly black casts, which "City of Angels" is, resulting in a history of quick cancellations and few projects in development.
In an unprecedented move, on Wednesday night Moonves, Bochco and the other executives began making their case for "City of Angels." The group of mostly black entertainment professionals attending an invitation-only forum about the show at the Directors Guild of America was largely supportive of CBS' efforts. The forum, sponsored by the guild's African-American Steering Committee, represented a first glimpse into the making of the drama, which has already come under intense scrutiny because of its subject matter and groundbreaking agenda.
Acknowledging the high stakes already surrounding "City of Angels" and the impact the series could have on future drama series featuring minority casts, the panelists outlined their commitment to pull out all the stops in producing and marketing a high-quality drama that would appeal to all viewers. At the same time they underscored their intent to provide a show with minorities in a high-pressure professional atmosphere, which has been traditionally avoided by network executives, who have repeatedly concluded that there is no interest in a serious black drama.
In addition to Moonves and Bochco, the drama's co-creator Paris Barclay, stars Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox, and key writers and producers offered some behind-the-scenes insights into the making of the series during a free-wheeling discussion that alternated between raucous laughter and serious exchanges concerning the risks surrounding it--principally, staying true to the authenticity of the setting and the black characters while not turning off or alienating white viewers.
The series is providing its producers and network executives with unique creative and marketing challenges as it nears a premiere date--the series is expected to join the CBS schedule next year--in a TV season that has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of cultural diversity.
"This show is extremely important to CBS and it will have the weight of the entire network behind it," assured Moonves. As to how patient the network would be with the show if it doesn't draw large audiences quickly, Moonves said: "We will stick with it."
He also expects "City of Angels" to be the most scrutinized and high-profile series of the season because of the controversy over diversity in television. The four major broadcast networks came under attack this season by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other cultural advocacy groups when there were no minority leads in any of the new 26 shows scheduled for the new fall season. Even minor roles for minorities were scarce.
Bochco added that he realized that "City of Angels" would have to grab viewers within five to eight minutes, "or it won't work." But he seemed confident that the series would find its audience.
"Given the talent we have, if we do our job, America will do its job," said Bochco.
Saying that previous network black-themed dramas have not pulled in mainstream viewers because the characters have not been in enough "jeopardy," Bochco said he was fashioning a fast-moving melodrama with traditional qualities such as interpersonal tensions, adrenaline-pumping situations and weekly tension in the style of his most successful series: "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." And while the characters will be mostly black, he promises their concerns and situations would be relatable to all viewers.
The series will mix plot lines: Racial conflicts. Inadequate equipment. Bureaucratic nightmares. Drug abuse. Abandoned children. Romantic fallout. And ashy skin, a term used to describe dry skin on black people. The panel's moderator, Donna Brown Guillaume, joked that those in the audience who didn't understand the term should turn to ask their black neighbor.
Cracked Bochco: "White people called it psoriasis."
Bochco added that he did not want the show to take on added social significance because of its cast and themes: "I don't want it to be a political football. I want this to be seen as entertainment, to succeed on its own merits."
Due to editing and some reworking, producers did not show scenes from the pilot episode, but the energy between Moonves, Bochco and the other participants provided the evening's visual aid.
Bochco said of "City of Angels" that he has not been as optimistic about the potential of one of his projects since "Hill Street Blues" or the first season of "L.A. Law."
"We're shooting the fourth episode now, and the show has matured by leaps and bounds," said the acclaimed producer. "It's just getting its legs. This show, with a little bit of nurturing, could be a real success."
Barclay and others associated with the series also expressed excitement and confidence about the show's look, production values and largely diverse crew--from cameramen to grips. The hospital will have a messy look, and the visual feel will be more realistic and less stylized than the roaming camera of "NYPD Blue." "The camera will put the viewer right in the middle of the action," said Barclay, an Emmy-winning director for his work on "NYPD Blue."
Moonves said that while the series would receive the conventional CBS promotional push used for current shows, the network would make a special effort to reach black viewers by targeting the community, churches and other black establishments. An outside black public relations firm is being specifically hired for the project.
"City of Angels" was characteristic of the network's commitment to cultural diversity, according to Moonves: "This really reflects what we're trying to do," adding that he and Bochco agreed to do the series before the controversy erupted.
Still up in the air is a premiere date. The network's current dramas, including the new "Judging Amy" and "Family Law," are all performing well, and there is no available slot at present where "City of Angels" can be scheduled. The show could debut in January or as late as April.
"We're still wrestling with the time period," said Moonves.
The series stars Underwood ("L.A. Law") as Angel of Mercy Hospital head surgeon Ben Turner, a passionate and determined doctor whose family has a tragic history at the facility. The hospital's new medical director is the no-nonsense Lillian Price. Played by Fox ("Independence Day"), she is initially shocked at the callous treatment of patients, and starts to whip the staff into shape. And then there is her own personal history with Turner--he abandoned her at the altar seven years earlier.
"City of Angels" is facing its own test of history. While several comedies featuring black leads or black casts such as "The Cosby Show," "The Jeffersons," "Sanford & Son" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" have enjoyed popularity with viewers, the relatively few network dramas with largely minority casts have generally been poorly received. Series such as "Under One Roof," "I'll Fly Away," "Shaft" and the Bochco-produced 1979 drama, "Paris," starring James Earl Jones as a police captain, were critically acclaimed but failed to attract significant viewers.
However, Barclay pointed out that the new series would also offer a unique and race-specific look at how African Americans relate to each other as opposed to white people. "African Americans live in two worlds--their world and the dominant world. We'll show the way black people talk around black people, and relate to different people in different ways."
Despite the generally upbeat night, Bochco conceded that "City of Angels" "at least on paper seems like a long shot." The series represents a high risk that could sound the death knell for future network dramas with minority casts if it does not catch on with mainstream audiences. Bochco said: "They'll say, 'If Bochco and all this talent can't make this work, why should we even attempt it?' "