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Black Sitcoms Could Be Casualty of Network Merger

ED GORDON, host:

This fall, two broadcast networks will merge into one. The WB and UPN will become the CW. With the merger comes downsizing. And in the TV world, that means many shows from both networks have been canceled, including the majority of African-American sitcoms from UPN. How will that impact diversity on television?

NPR's Nova Safo takes a look.

NOVA SAFO reporting:

When the CW starts broadcasting this fall, its schedule will be filled with six UPN shows and five WB dramas. Jo Adalian, TV editor at Hollywood trade publication Variety, says executives picked the highest rated and best quality shows from both networks.

Mr. JO ADALIAN (TV Editor, Variety magazine): It's not going to make it a very sexy network to start, but network TV is not always about being sexy, it's about being stable. And if they can come on and have shows that everyone knows and are already in love with, that gives them a better chance of next year creating new hits that they can launch behind the existing shows.

SAFO: The CW will try out two new programs as well, a mystery drama called Runaway, and a comedy called The Game, with a primarily African-American cast. It's about the wives and girlfriends of pro-football players.

(Soundbite of TV show “The Game”)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): Derwin?

Mr. ALDIS HODGE (Actor): (as Derwin Davis) Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, I'm Jason(ph) Pitts'(ph) wife.

Mr. HODGE: Oh, yeah, hi.

Unidentified Woman: I wanted to meet you since you're part of the receiving family now. By the way, it was a good catch on Sunday. Everyone's still talking about it, but don't let it get to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HODGE: Okay. This is my girlfriend Melanie.

Unidentified Woman: Are you an out-of-town girlfriend or an in-town girlfriend?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAFO: The Game is produced by the same production team as Girlfriends, one of the three UPN comedies geared towards black audiences that survived the merger. All of the comedies appear on the CW on Sunday night, in what the network is calling two original hours of urban comedies.

Professor JANET DATES (Dean, School of Communications, Howard University): Well, you know, I want to laugh. We have all these euphemisms for things, you know.

SAFO: Janet Dates is the dean of the School of Communications at Howard University. Five UPN comedies featuring African Americans are being dropped, and Dates is concerned. Yes, those sitcoms weren't necessarily can't-miss television, she says, but they served as an important training ground.

Prof. DATES: There are a lot of people who are cutting their teeth, who are people of color, who are not going to get an opportunity to work on so-called mainstream shows. So they're learning their craft on shows that are these silly, sitcom fairs that are targeted towards African Americans that feature African Americans.

Mr. REGINALD HUDLIN (President, Entertainment Division, Black Entertainment Television): As a person who a little over a year ago was a producer shopping my wares, of course you always want more places to sell your product.

SAFO: Reginald Hudlin is president of entertainment at Black Entertainment Television.

Mr. HUDLIN: Very few networks have any kind of black strategy. So the fact that two possible places that would buy black product have now been merged into one is a bit of a disappointment.

SAFO: According to the Writers Guild of America, during the last TV season, almost half of all black writers working in television wrote for UPN shows. It remains to be seen whether the CW will tap into that talent pool. That would be crucial, says Janet Dates.

Prof. DATES: If we're going to make any changes in what goes on in front of the camera, we're going to have to make some changes behind the camera - among the people who make the decisions, and who do the writing, and who are the producers.

SAFO: The CW declined requests for an interview, but released a brief e-mailed statement saying, “The CW is committed to diversity behind and in front of the camera. Our fall schedule reflects that commitment, and we believe viewers will see that in our fall programming slate and in year's to come.”

Variety's TV Editor Jo Adilian says in the short term, the three surviving UPN comedies with African-American casts may have a better home at the CW than they did at UPN.

Mr. ADILIAN: A strong television network that actually programs shows that maybe have African Americans in them, is a good thing. The fact is neither UPN nor WB were very strong networks. There's a chance that this new network will be stronger and, perhaps, can sustain these shows for a longer time. The WB had already gotten out of the business. The WB used to have, just as much, if not more, comedies geared towards African Americans, than UPN did. And those shows just went away. And the major broadcast networks don't have anything anymore. NBC used to have one or two. ABC used to - none.

SAFO: Adilian says there is room for optimism. Many hour-long network dramas include mixed casts, with minorities integrated into plots, shows such as Grey's Anatomy and Lost, on ABC; and CSI: Miami and Numbers, on CBS.

BET's Reginald Hudlin says more networks are trying to reach black viewers.

Mr. HUDLIN: At the same time, most of them still don't have an acute understanding of the nuances of what appeals to that audience. So I still feel like I can compete.

SAFO: But BET is not necessarily competing in the same arena. The cable channel's upcoming season includes nine new shows, but none are sitcoms or dramas. Meanwhile, Janet Dates says broadcast networks have failed to tell nuanced stories about the lives of African Americans. Dates wants networks to think about diversity in new ways.

Prof. DATES: One of the things that I would like to see is that we have true integration. That, in fact, you've got programming all over the schedule where people get to see differences and share each others lives and learn about each other. And that's what's not there. That's a failing on the part of the industry.

SAFO: All four major broadcast networks now have in-house diversity programs created after an embarrassing episode in 1999. That's when the predominantly white lineup of fall shows caused an outcry. Janet Dates hopes the end of UPN will be just enough of a shakeup to motivate networks towards further gains in diversity.

Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.

GORDON: That's our program for the day. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nova Safo