Viewers this fall will tune in to a TV season that will be dramatically different from years past. What they’ll see on the screen will be closer to full color.
At least 10 new and returning series on the Big Four networks will feature African-American and Latino actors in lead roles when the 1997-98 season begins Sept. 22. Among them: Gregory Hines in CBS’ “The Gregory Hines Show”; Richard Roundtree in Fox’s “413 Hope Street”; and Constance Marie (“My Family/Mi Familia” and “Selena”) in NBC’s “Union Square.”
NBC also is undertaking an unprecedented task for the network - creating minority roles in each of its eight new sitcoms and dramas.
“Diversity is an important goal for us,” NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield told the nation’s TV critics, who are meeting in Pasadena to preview the new season. “It’s not a quota. We do have a great history that we’re proud of, particularly in the dramatic shows and the roles we’ve had for minorities. But we needed to improve on the comedies, and I think we have.”
At CBS, Entertainment President Leslie Moonves puts it this way: “You mean we can’t be called the Caucasian Broadcasting System anymore?”
Though broadcast network executives often dispute the figures, overall viewership of NBC, CBS and ABC continues to slide to new lows - roughly 49 percent of the total TV audience tuned in to the Big Three networks last season, down from 73.5 percent 10 years ago. As the networks see minorities embrace shows on the smaller networks, WB and UPN, they are looking for ways to lure them back.
But that may not be so easy. BBDO, a New York-based advertising agency that tracks viewing trends, found that NBC’s “Seinfeld” was the second favorite show among total television households last season, but it finished a meager 68th in black households. “Suddenly Susan” which finished third overall, was 87th in black viewers.
Conversely, shows such as Fox’s “Living Single,” and UPN’s “Moesha” and “Malcolm and Eddie” which were among the top 10 shows with black viewers register barely a blip on the television screens of white viewers.
Last season, some networks - particularly NBC - were roundly criticized for a lack of minority representation in their overall programming. And mini-networks UPN and WB, which aired the bulk of shows with minorities, took heat from African-American groups for creating, in essence, a TV ghetto of broad-based sitcoms. But many black viewers in large urban centers didn’t seem to mind, making successes out of such shows as WB’s “The Jamie Foxx Show” and UPN’s “Malcolm and Eddie.”
“The perception may be that the smaller networks have put more urgency into the bigger networks. I think it’s just cyclical,” says Marcus King, creator of “Jamie Foxx” and NBC’s upcoming “Built to Last,” starring young stand-up comic Royale Watkins and Oscar nominee Paul Winfield.
But King adds: “There’s definitely more of a balance this season of the wider range of African-American experiences.”
From Della Reese’s heaven-sent charmer on CBS’ popular “Touched by an Angel” to Ice-T’s troubled-cat-turned-crime fighter in NBC’s new “Players,” viewers this fall also will see more minority stars in life-affirming roles.
The networks’ intent is simple: “We want to attract all kinds of viewers,” CBS’ Moonves says.
“We’re broadcasters, not niche programmers,” NBC’s Littlefield says. “We’re in the business of attracting eyeballs. It will only work if it can invite a large broad-based audience into the show.”