Archive for Saturday, July 8, 2000

Night of all-black comedies rankles some of shows’ stars

July 8, 2000


— One sentence of a recent newspaper story was enough to set off Steve Harvey.

While backstage at a New York City hotel as he waited to address advertisers and TV critics who were there to see the WB network present its fall schedule, the comedian spied a story that said the network's so-called black-themed shows were moving to Sunday night.

Why is there always this separation in the way that TV critics ever talk about us?comedian Steve Harvey

That was it. The article didn't mention "The Steve Harvey Show," "For Your Love" or "The Jamie Foxx Show." There was no inkling of what the programs were about, just a reference to the skin color of most cast members.

"I felt degraded at that moment," Harvey recalled. "I felt un-American at that moment. I felt isolated. Why is there always this separation in the way that TV critics ever talk about us?"

Harvey and actress Holly Robinson Peete of "For Your Love" raised that question onstage. They challenged the advertisers not to assume that only black people were interested in their work.

It raised an issue usually overlooked in the past year's discussion about diversity on the TV screen.

The WB and UPN each devote one night of their schedules to shows with primarily black casts. None of the five other broadcasters can claim such obvious efforts to reach out to a minority audience.

But do these schedules promote segregation instead of integration?

'It's a little short-sighted'

Peete is grateful the WB picked up "For Your Love" after it was dropped by NBC. But she wonders why most of the white viewers who watched her show disappeared with the move, and why more isn't done to court them.

The sitcom, set in suburban of Oak Park, Ill., isn't really compatible with the shows that surround it on the WB's schedule, she said.

"It's not a show about black people," she said. "It's a show about love and relationships. It does irk me a lot when I see people sort of paint us with a broad brush and say that because we have a majority black cast, we're a black show."

Harvey noted that no one describes "Friends" as a white show. He said he tries to make a show that appeals to everyone.

Both stars say they notice that when WB promotes itself in TV Guide or on billboards, the attractive white casts of teen-oriented shows like "Dawson's Creek" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" get the most attention. Most of the promotion opportunities for their shows come on urban outlets, they say.

"Putting the shows on all on one night has hurt us demographically," Peete said. "It's a little short-sighted."

Many shows with primarily black casts have broken through to general audiences, from "Good Times" and "The Flip Wilson Show" in the 1970s to "Cosby" in the 1980s.

But those shows were all popular before the breakthrough of cable gave viewers many more choices. Studies show there are often vast differences in what blacks and whites consider their favorite shows, although that gap has narrowed somewhat.

"It's very hard, as television history has proven, to get people who are not of color to watch shows about people who are," said Jerry Offsay, Showtime network president.

Recent evidence includes two comedies that were canceled by their networks: "The PJs," a cartoon with an all-black cast on Fox, and "The Hughleys," about a black family moving into a white suburb on ABC.

"The PJs" was picked up by the WB and "The Hughleys" by UPN, and both will run this fall on nights with shows that have mostly black casts.

"I think audiences tend to look for programs that they can relate to," said Jamie Kellner, WB president. "When a black audience sees programs that deal with their culture, they respond. I think it is a service. I don't think there is any negative side to it."

But many blacks disagree that these shows reflect aspects of black life and culture to which they can relate and say that some of the comedies even promote stereotypes.

Kellner said it's not true that the WB promotes these comedies only to black audiences. Harvey is annoyed that the WB has bounced his show from night to night on its schedule through the years; Kellner said it's a statement of confidence that it is moving to Sundays, generally the most popular television-viewing night of the week.

The WB is also using Sunday to premiere two new comedies with mostly white casts this fall.

"I hope we can find a way to broaden this out," he said.

Speaking at the schedule presentation, Harvey found a way to both raise consciousness and wickedly parody his network with the first seven words out of his mouth: "I'm Steve Harvey," he deadpanned. "I'm a white teen-ager."

He and Peete are both glad they raised the issue at a venue where so many influential people were listening. Maybe it means Harvey will see one less description of himself as a black comedian who stars in a black TV show.

"You know how frustrating that gets at times?" he said. "I just want to be a part of the human race. You get sick of that when it's such a pervasive part of your day, everyday."

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