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The Boston Phoenix Off the Rails

The African-American freeze-out

By Robert David Sullivan

JULY 26, 1999:  The religious right couldn't sustain a boycott against the queer-lovin' Disney Corporation, so it's unlikely that the NAACP will be able to keep African-Americans away from their television sets just because the major networks won't come up with more insipid sit-coms with black characters. Still, the civil-rights group got everyone's attention last week when it pointed out that none of the 25 new shows on the big four networks this fall has an African-American in the lead. NAACP president Kweisi Mfume charged that television executives are "clueless, careless, or both," and he hinted at some kind of legal action against the networks on the grounds that they're failing to serve the "public interest." Given the steady decline in the power of the free-TV networks, this is like going after drive-in movie theaters for not showing How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Perhaps the NAACP should join forces with the American Association of Retired Persons. The most popular television series of the '70s and '80s with mostly black casts -- Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and The Cosby Show -- all had middle-aged leads and plenty of senior-citizen supporting characters. Even today, the only network series that appeal almost equally to black and white viewers are CBS's Cosby and Touched by an Angel, starring 62-year-old Cos and 67-year-old Della Reese; unfortunately, they are also successful at repelling younger viewers of both races.

Do white viewers prefer older black characters because they're less threatening? More likely it's a case of shared cultural references. Redd Foxx, who already had a cult following from his raunchy comedy albums before he landed in Sanford and Son (weeknights at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land), frequently got laughs with his over-enunciated imitations of popular black crooners like the Ink Spots ("If I Didn't Care"). Bill Cosby, whose unusually clean comedy albums were even more popular than Foxx's, used his sit-com to spotlight middle-of-the-road jazz acts and pop singers like Bobby McFerrin. Both of their sit-coms finessed racial problems (junk dealer Fred Sanford didn't depend on a white landlord or employer, and Cosby's Cliff Huxtable was wealthy enough to believe in a color-blind society), concentrating instead on the universal TV theme of control-freak fathers versus independent children. It's difficult to imagine a hip-hop artist or a comic as incendiary as Chris Rock slipping into a persona with such mainstream appeal, though Rock did co-produce ABC's minimally successful and thoroughly bland sit-com about a black family moving to the suburbs, The Hughleys. (I'm reminded that, for the first episode of his brief 1977 variety series, Richard Pryor assured his audience that he wasn't giving up anything to appear on TV -- a claim that was followed by a shot in which Pryor appeared to be both nude and genital-free. NBC upped the joke by cutting the scene from the show and then axing the series entirely, to be replaced by Man from Atlantis.)

One problem, at least from the NAACP's point of view, is that the black audience may be large but it's not monolithic in its age, economic status, or taste. UPN's teen-oriented Moesha, widely considered the best of the African-American sit-coms on prime time, wins about six percent of the total audience, but African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population. Political candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton can get almost 90 percent of the black vote, but I doubt that any television series can do as well with black viewers, which makes such "niche" programming even riskier for the broadcast networks.

The NAACP might have better luck leaning on the cable industry, and a temporary boycott of cable service might be more realistic, and more easily measured, than a boycott of free TV. There are a few cable series with African-American leads, such as Lifetime's Any Day Now and Showtime's Linc's, but cable has generally been a disappointment for anyone seeking more diverse programming. Black Entertainment TV, for example, mostly airs music videos and reruns of sit-coms that lasted only a few months on the free networks.

All it takes is one hit like The Cosby Show and all the networks will come up with their own copies, forcing the NAACP to complain about the quality rather than the quantity of black characters. But I suspect that we're more likely to see new Latino characters on the small screen, since they represent a faster-growing population and a more lucrative foreign market. (When NBC's sit-com Jesse returns this fall, for example, Christine Applegate's unwieldy supporting cast will be gone, except for Chilean boyfriend Bruno Campos.) Then again, maybe The Ricky Martin Show will send viewers of all races running to join the NAACP protest.

American Public Television may get most of its personal donations from registered Democrats, but you wouldn't know that from its programming line-up. What's so radical about The Nightly Business Report and Wall Street Week? When an indisputably left-of-center program does get produced -- like the gay-and-lesbian newsmagazine In the Life -- it's usually blacked out by PBS affiliates in conservative regions anyway. And I doubt that the $20 and $50 donations to WGBH from lefties in Cambridge have more influence than the million-dollar grants from corporations like Mobil Oil.

That said, the Republicans in Congress -- now threatening to slash PBS funding because WGBH and other affiliates swapped donor lists with the Democratic Party -- aren't going to like next week's episode of P.O.V. (Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Channel 2). The Double Life of Ernesto Gómez Gómez fits the image of PBS as an apologist for all things anti-American. Catherine Ryan & Gary Weimberg's highly stylized documentary is about a young man raised in Mexico who discovers that his real mother is a Puerto Rican "revolutionary" imprisoned in the United States on charges that are never really explained to the viewer but apparently include bomb making. There is some evidence that the mother's 55-year sentence is excessive, but the filmmakers' sugar-coated presentation of the Puerto Rican independence movement is damaging to their credibility. (If the United States is so despised there, why did only four percent of the electorate vote for independence in 1993?)

Ernesto, whose name was changed from Guillermo when he was sent to Mexico at the age of 13 months, is described by a family friend as "one boy, but with two souls." We are told that at the age of 10 he won a prize for writing a patriotic essay in school, and that his adopted mother rewarded him by telling Ernesto that Mexico "wasn't his country." (Isn't this the same kind of logic behind ethnic cleansing?) By the end of the documentary, Ernesto has reconciled with his imprisoned mother and become a US citizen so that he can fight for Puerto Rican independence, but he comes off as a confused young man who has been bullied into his role as an activist. Double Life isn't persuasive enough as political argument or revealing enough as biography.

Rerun alert. Nick at Nite last week added the 1978-82 sit-com WKRP in Cincinnati to its schedule (weeknights at midnight). This is truly an odd duck of a series, faithful to the Mary Tyler Moore Show notion of co-workers as a loving family but also surprisingly full of cynicism. CBS first aired the show when jigglefests like Three's Company and Charlie's Angels were huge hits, and the network must have hoped that WKRP co-star and pin-up girl Loni Anderson would also attract horny young viewers to her sit-com about a fifth-rate radio station that switches from "easy listening" to rock. Her posters were popular, but WKRP producers never felt the need to put Anderson in a halter top, and they never wrote any other cheesecake characters into the show. And instead of a cute bimbo, Anderson's character turned into a savvy golddigger. ("I am attracted to older men. They're kind and warm, and they tire easily," she says in one episode.) CBS must have hated the show it ended up with: the network changed its time slot 11 times before finally killing it.

WKRP doesn't have especially witty writing, but its pacing is unusually brisk (most episodes do without the MTM-style establishment shots between scenes), and some of its plots have turned out to be prescient (such as those dealing with the now-common practice of using "automated" DJs who aren't even in the same city as the radio station). It's also fun to try to identify the posters all over the station, which change with every episode, and to spot such vintage touches as DJ Johnny Fever wearing a Polish "Solidarity" T-shirt.

Also underappreciated during its initial run was Fox's 1992-93 Ben Stiller Show, a sketch-comedy series featuring Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk (now on HBO's Mr. Show). FX has picked up the rerun rights and will show a Ben Stiller marathon on August 1 from 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. I hope the line-up includes "Manson" (a demented parody of Lassie) and multiple appearances by the anti-Muppet sock puppet named Skank.

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