When Neil H. Moritz, the executive producer of "Manchester Prep" (a new fall television series about a private academy in New York City) was asked a few months ago why all the preppies in the show were white, he blithely said that actors were chosen who best fit the story the show was trying to tell. But what story is that? That only rich, white kids go to exclusive schools in the United States? This ignores the fact that the number of blacks and other minorities enrolled at prep schools has climbed significantly in recent years.
Tying the blinders tight on reality strikes me as nothing but a self-serving excuse for the blatant ethnic cleansing in network TV. This is even more galling when one considers the success of "Homicide," "ER," "Law & Order," "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and, of course, "Cosby"--all of which have featured African Americans in lead or prominent support roles. But that's the past.
With the fall lineup, network TV executives did an about-face. Not one of the 26 new comedies and dramas announced by CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox had an African-American character in a feature role. Only a paltry few of the new shows had African Americans in supporting roles. UPN and WB network executives took their cue from the major networks and dumped most of their black-themed comedy shows into a single night. They also dropped heavy hints that this is a first step toward cutting back, if not outright eliminating, their black-cast comedy shows.
The only exception to this TV whitening is a new series scheduled for CBS next January from producer Steven Bochco, which centers on life in an inner-city hospital and features a predominantly African-American cast. Even with this series, I'll bet that TV executives will have their eyes glued more nervously than usual on the ratings to see if it is an instant hit. If it isn't, they'll argue that with the ruthless pressure from advertisers and rival network competitors, they can't afford to keep poorly rated shows on the air for the sake of racial or gender correctness.
But no one is asking them to do that. If a TV series is well written, with compelling stories, and laced with crackling performances, there is no reason viewers wouldn't tune in week after week. And even if they don't, why not give a new series a chance to develop a following if it receives critical acclaim and positive viewer comments? "Hill Street Blues" limped along with low ratings in its early days, but TV execs saw the show's potential and stuck with it until it caught on. "Frank's Place" and Fox's "410 Hope St." were shows that, with the right push, might have turned into ratings successes.
Now what about the notion that whites will watch blacks in a comedy series but not in a drama series? A little history refresher course is in order here. For decades, whites have packed concert halls, theaters and stadiums to cheer black musicians, applaud black divas, see the works of black playwrights and hail black sports figures. In the 1970s, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" racked up high ratings and much critical praise. "Roots" is still ranked as the most watched TV miniseries ever. Two of last year's miniseries, NBC's "The Temptations" and CBS's "Mama Flora's Family" (an adaption of Alex Haley's final novel about an African American matriarch's life in 20th-century America), also garnered huge ratings. More recently, cable productions such as HBO's "Miss Evers' Boys," TNT's "Passing Glory" and Showtime's "Linc's" have attracted solid viewing audiences.
What TV executives also continue to ignore is that African-American households are confirmed TV watchers. According to a TN Media survey, blacks watched 40 percent more TV than non-blacks in the final quarter of 1998. That adds up to 70 hours a week of TV viewing compared with about 50 hours for non-blacks. So the audience is there.
And why wouldn't it be? Most blacks don't fit the media's stereotyped crime- and violence-prone image. More blacks than ever have higher incomes and good jobs in business, trades and the professions: According to a U.S. Census report released in February, nine out of 10 blacks between the ages of 25 and 29 are high school graduates, and 15 percent have college degrees. The black community's spending power also is on the rise: The top 100 black-owned businesses in Black Enterprise magazine's annual survey this year racked up $14 billion in product sales. This is why African Americans are tired of seeing themselves portrayed on TV as clowns, criminals, pimps, whores, welfare queens and crack moms. That's why powerful dramas such as "Mama Flora's Family" do so well.
TV executives, industry supporters and commentators such as actor Damon Standifer (my debating partner here and in Los Angeles) fight back by turning the tables on their critics. They accuse me and others of demanding politically correct roles and series for blacks. They claim that we will take the industry to task no matter how blacks are portrayed on the screen.
This argument stretches belief to the outer limits of absurdity. It asks us to believe that black activists have the power to tell TV executives how to write and cast their shows. This argument asks us to believe that activists' demands for more racial diversity are somehow responsible for the cleansing of blacks, Latinos and Asians from lead roles in the 26 shows that will debut on the networks this fall.
This is wrongheaded and backward. Decades-old protests by national organizations such as the NAACP, CORE and the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, among others, are the central reason for the gains that African Americans have made in front of and behind the camera.
African-American TV viewers want and deserve more films and TV productions that offer an accurate and varied picture of black life. CBS has shown itself willing to take the plunge with Steven Bochco's upcoming series. Will the other networks have the courage to jump in with dramatic shows of their own? If not, network TV will continue to be a white, white world.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based syndicated columnist, is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).