Faster than a speeding bullet, NBC and ABC suits have been racing to add minorities to their prime-time schedules since announcing their nearly all-white lineups back in May.
More powerful than a locomotive has proved the NAACP's threat to take legal action against the broadcasters--though some executives insist that their decisions to cast minorities predate the NAACP's news conference earlier this month.
NBC, appearing today and tomorrow, announced it's cast five minority actors on various programs, including sitcoms "Suddenly Susan" and "Jesse" and dramas "ER" and the new "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Also promised are two minority characters on "West Wing," but they've not been cast.
NBC suits also announced fast-track sitcom projects from African American producers Keenen Ivory Wayans and Yvette Lee Bowser. Wayans's show will be about an interracial family--he's black, she's white, they each have kids. Bowser's will probably be about African American sisters, though there's no set concept yet--even though NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier promises it'll be on the air this coming season.
ABC, which trotted out its executives at the summer TV press tour here on Tuesday and Wednesday, is adding six minority roles to its prime-time shows, including two characters on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," one each on new dramas "Wasteland" and "Once & Again" and two on midseason shows "Bellevue" and "Talk to Me."
The ABC and NBC days of the tour were markedly different from those of CBS. CBS was transformed from the beleaguered-geezer network--whose shows the critics almost never wrote about and whose season win they barely acknowledged--to the very hip, ethnically diverse network. CBS Network CEO Leslie Moonves reveled in it. His lineup, after all, includes the midseason "City of Angels," which will star a mostly minority ensemble cast, has many minority writers and is being produced by Steven Bochco and Paris Barclay, a well-respected African American producer.
Fox fell somewhere in between. During its press tour session, Fox Entertainment Group President Doug Herzog announced that one minority cast member would join new drama series "Manchester Prep." But he already had a few people of color cast on his fall schedule, including a police lieutenant and a Hispanic female cop in major roles on "Badland," a Hispanic role on its "Party of Five" spinoff and a disabled best friend on "Malcolm in the Middle." Earlier this week, a coalition of Hispanic groups announced its own plans for a week-long boycott of the four big networks to protest stereotyping and few roles for Latinos.
But NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa was really in a jam. Last January, he'd promised the TV critics that his lineup for fall would be more diverse. He failed to deliver and knew they would be gunning for him. So he started his session this morning by reminding them that he's Asian American. He said that when he was a child he got really ticked off that David Carradine played a Chinese man on the TV series "Kung Fu." Then he commended the critics--sure to play well--for their "vigilance" in covering the issue at the tour, which he said "certainly moved things along."
"It would be totally disingenuous to stand up here and say we did this on our own," Sassa acknowledged.
And yet ABC and NBC executives have had little to offer in the way of explanation for their very-white new-show rosters. ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg, for instance, suggested it was the fault of the May rush to cast shows all at the same time.
"You're looking for the best casting possible and sometimes in the speed of that you don't recognize the larger picture. And once you then see the composition of your cast, we realized that we had to make some changes," he said.
Barclay, during his session for CBS's new "City of Angels," proposed a very different theory. "Most of the people who develop and oversee network television shows are white males who live in Malibu, Brentwood or Bel Air," he said. "They don't know a lot of black people and they're not interested in really writing those kinds of characters. They never grew up with them; they're not familiar with them."
And Kevin Williamson, of "Dawson's Creek" and "Scream" fame, seemed to confirm Barclay's theory. Williamson, at the tour to plug his new ABC drama series "Wasteland," says he's been "enlightened" by the NAACP's action. He went back and introduced an African American character in the pilot episode instead of later in the season, as originally planned.
"We went back and . . . did a day of reshoots . . . when all the kaboboo happened with the NAACP, making me and, I guess, everybody else, aware of it, which was really cool," Williamson said.
But other producers were furious that their shows were being used by the networks to indicate a major response to the criticism.
That includes film and TV producer Ed Zwick, who is doing a new drama series for ABC called "Once & Again," starring Sela Ward.
He says the African American character being introduced after the pilot episode had always been intended for the series.
"I have some very strong feelings about this whole movement that's gone on because it's very important to say what our history and tradition has been when it comes to casting. It has to do with appropriateness," Zwick said."
"In the course of 10 years, I've cast Denzel Washington as the lead in three movies. Twice, not because he was a black actor but because he was a great actor. Once because he was a great actor and black actor, because the subject was about black men. But I did a movie recently called 'Shakespeare in Love,' where I did not cast Denzel Washington, not because he wasn't a great actor or a great Shakespearean actor but because it wasn't appropriate to cast him.
"We want to cast according to the vision we have, and not subject to any agenda or pressure or any redress of the failings of popular culture," Zwick said. "We want to do it according to our heart and our art."