Mfume: 'Virtual whitewash in programming'
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LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Broadcast networks say they're drawing up plans to diversify the racial and ethnic mixes on their shows, amid criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other organizations.
The NAACP says none of the big four television networks has a lead actor of color in the more than 25 new programs planned for the fall season. The organization is threatening a boycott and lawsuit.
"When the television-viewing public sits down to watch the new prime-time shows scheduled for this fallís lineup," says Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president, "they will see a virtual whitewash in programming.
"We believe we're a vital part of that public," Mfume says, "and we will no longer be silent."
The National Council of La Raza and other Latino groups are joining the call for diversity. They announced their demands Tuesday for more Hispanic representation on television. They're calling for a weeklong boycott of the four major networks.
"The networks' licenses are granted by the government," says Bob Johnson, CEO of the Black Entertainment Network, "in essence, to serve the public interests. They have an obligation, and they have to be willing to do it. They have to do some things first: They've got to put more black people in decision-making positions in the networks in terms of programming."
As pressure mounts, officials of the networks under fire -- CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX -- are talking of increasing minority representation. CBS says it has minority characters featured in 12 of 19 programs in its fall lineup.
"We can, we will do more," Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS has told the Television Critics Association's summer meeting in Pasadena, California. "But CBS stands alone as the No. 1 network aware of its responsibility in this area."
Among its shows featuring key characters of color, CBS lists "Martial Law" with Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and Arsenio Hall; "Touched By an Angel" with singer-actress Della Reese; and "Nash Bridges" with comedian Cheech Marin. And the network is bringing in a hospital drama, "City of Angels," with Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox, as a mid-season replacement.
"I'm very excited and proud that we have a chance to remedy that" perceived imbalance in representation, says actor Underwood. "Because the bottom line is (that) if it's successful then hopefully you'll see more. If it fails, you won't."
CBS' new fall show "Now and Again" has a black actor, Dennis Haysbert, playing a scientist. Other CBS programs expected to field minority characters include "Family Law" and "Judging Amy."
There appears to be movement at other networks, as well.
ABC says it plans to diversify the acting companies of at least five shows, including "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." On that returning program, Sabrina is to get a black apprentice and a Hispanic friend.
Network officials say they're having black characters written into "Wasteland," a new drama about young New Yorkers, and "Once and Again" from "thirtysomething" creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Upcoming shows "Talk to Me" and "Bellevue" are to add ethnic characters too.
Jamie Tarses, ABC entertainment president, says producers have been asked to look for opportunities to diversify their casts but haven't been ordered to do so.
Hispanic organizations say they're pleased with the changes announced so far.
"We've been waiting a very long time for this," says Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, "and it's a step in the right direction."
NBC executives say their network is considering new minority characters for inclusion in "Jesse" and "Suddenly Susan."
FOX officials say they're adding an African-American to "Manchester Prep," which is scheduled to replace the now-defunct the "Beverly Hills, 90210." FOX also is expected to write minority characters into "Time of Your Life," its "Party of Five" spinoff.
Smaller networks -- such as UPN -- say they offer the best opportunities for actors of color, with shows such as "Moesha" and the new program "Shasta McNasty."
"We've frequently been referred to as 'the struggling UPN' or (in) other derogatory terms," says Tom Nunan, UPN entertainment president, "and frankly it kind of stinks that we haven't gotten the credit. Not just this season but in seasons past -- by print journalism and electronic media -- by not singling us out and showing how diverse our schedule truly is."
Also listed on the UPN schedule this fall is Jaleel White in "Grownups." He starred in the ABC and CBS hit "Family Matters."
White says he believes the major networks will become more diverse if they see the color green. "If a project that happens to have an African-American lead does well," he says, "you're going to see a lot more African-American leads next year."
"The Steve Harvey Show," on the WB, is the top-rated program among African-American families. But Steve Harvey tells Knight Ridder news service he feels unappreciated and underpaid.
"If my show was No. 1 in any other demographic," says Harvey, "I'd get to be on the sides of buses and billboards all over town. I'd get to be on the covers of magazines. But I get no parties, no balloons. I don't even get a basket of fruit sent to my trailer."
While Harvey's show may be tops among black viewers, it ranks 127th among white viewers, who are more aggressively pursued by advertisers.
"Advertisers won't pay for African-Americans," Knight Ridder quotes Harvey as saying at the Pasadena critics meeting. "They don't think we buy cars and detergent and homes. They think all we do is eat candy and drink soda."
Jamie Kellner, WB CEO, while not responding directly to Harvey's comments, says the network intends to keep black programming a part of its schedule. "We think it's good business for us," Kellner tells Knight Ridder. "We intend to stay in the business."
For his part, Harvey has good words for Kellner, too, and says he understands the dilemma faced by television executives who may be torn between social demands and revenue issues.
"He's a honest man who does what he says," Harvey says of the WB's Kellner. "But it's an amazing trap that he's caught in."
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