Laurence Fishburne's Starring Role on 'CSI' Could Be a Boon for Black Actors

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Since Barack Obama won the race to become our next president, there has been a certain amount of hoo-hah-ing among The Reporters Who Cover Television over the notion that this historic election will cause the country to see some actual African American lead characters on broadcast TV series.

You know, in much the same way the presidential elections of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton caused a positive rash of prime-time shows starring down-home-ing, military service-skirting, goodol'-boy-ing actors to erupt across prime time: "Ally McBeal," "Frasier," "The Ben Stiller Show," "The Sopranos" -- the list goes on and on.

Industry suits have been quoted of late in well-crafted, whither-goest-the-election-so-goest-prime-time-TV stories. Most famously, NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman showed us more of that meta-ironic wit for which he's famous when he proclaimed: "We've all been colorblind for years." The gag about NBC, of course, is that though it aired "The Cosby Show" in the '80s, it then became the network in which the letters N, B and C stood for No Black Characters. The network is, in fact, credited with creating a whole new genre of prime-time programming: series set in New York City in which the lead characters are actually able to not run into people of color: "Friends," "Seinfeld," "Mad About You."

But, getting back to the whole whither-goest-the-presidential-election-so-goest-prime-time-casting thing, the truth is, the job prospects for black actors hoping to land lead roles in prime-time TV series actually rests not on Obama's shoulders but on Laurence Fishburne's.

The Emmy- and Tony-winning Fishburne tonight joins the cast of this season's No. 1-ranked series, "CSI," playing a college lecturer and former pathologist whose genetic profile has been linked to those of serial killers -- hence his interest in that subject -- and who meets members of the CSI team during a murder investigation. Eventually, he winds up joining them.

And, for the record, CBS had officially confirmed that Fishburne was stepping in to replace departing cast member William Petersen back in the summer -- long before Obama became POTUS-elect.

CBS has a lot riding on Fishburne, what with "CSI" being the country's most watched television show season to date, averaging about 21 million viewers.

Industry navel gazers mostly think that it's shrewd of CBS to go with Fishburne in the new role, a smart way to introduce an African American lead, they say, because he's joining a work in progress.

"If it was a brand-new series, it would watched more closely than this will be. This is basically franchise maintenance as opposed to inspiration," said one such industry watcher, adding, "To put it in political parlance, it's like he's the speaker of the House taking over, as opposed to having just been elected."

For years, TV industry execs have privately explained their hesitation in casting blacks in lead roles: Shows with black leads are difficult to sell overseas, they said. Swaths of the country are not willing to watch a series with a black star, they say, though those viewers will meet you halfway and watch a series with black actors in ensemble casts. They also say a show with a black lead sends a tacit signal that it is targeted to a niche audience instead of the broadest possible audience -- at the same time that they're putting on series in which entire hospitals or lawyers' offices are populated only with professionals younger than 30.

The bad news about the TV industry is that it assumes a failure is an indictment of the idea, when it's usually just an indictment of the show. When a period miniseries flops spectacularly, no network will touch a pitch for a period miniseries for years and years.

On the flip side, that means the TV industry assumes that a hit is an endorsement of an idea, when it's usually just an endorsement of that particular show. Put a "Lost" on the air and, the next TV season, the prime-time lineup is choked with serialized dramas oozing "mythology."

So if the numbers on "CSI" stay strong with Fishburne, that's good news for black actors. If he flops, it's bad news.

"Will people watch ['CSI'] as much as they did before [Fishburne joined the cast]? If it works, you'll see more shows taking a chance on black performers in lead roles," another industry watcher mused.

"If not, it will be the same old same old -- no matter who's president."

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