Color Television

| 17 Feb 2015 | 07:40

    Why are there no black stars in the big four networks' new fall lineup? Because blacks watch a lot of tv, sometimes twice as much as the average boob-tube-addicted white viewer. That advertisers therefore don't court them seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you understand the weird new world of "narrowcasting." Let's look at the typical heavy tv consumer, as they say in the trade. She's female (60 percent of the prime-time audience); she's old (people over 50 watch an hour more per day than the core target demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds); and there's a good chance she's black (the set's on 70 hours per week in black households, versus 50 hours per week in white ones). She is, in other words, Touched by an Angel, a hugely popular CBS show that features, probably not coincidentally, a black, female, over-50 co-star. I've never seen the wholesome Touched by an Angel, and odds are you haven't either (I'm familiar with this newspaper's demographics). But it's a top-10 mass audience hit, enjoying almost twice the ratings of a niche show like Fox's very nasty, very funny Family Guy, which I've watched regularly since it was introduced last spring. Question: On which show do advertisers pay more for a 30-second commercial? Answer: Family Guy, a top-10 favorite with teens, 18-to-34-year-olds and men under 50. These are more elusive eyeballs than Grandma's, so advertisers value them more.

    Family Guy is rife with tv references?sight gags about The Wonder Years, Star Trek, One Day at a Time, Speed Racer and Calvin Klein commercials pile up with the speed of a magician's deck of cards?but its executive producers, 25-year-old wunderkind animator Seth MacFarlane and King of the Hill veteran David Zuckerman, told me they don't watch much tv these days. Television writers always say that, and I used to think they were being disingenuous. But the truth is they really don't have time to sit around slackjawed in front of the set all evening like the typical Nielson family. Nor do they have much respect for those who do, as their writing sometimes makes clear.

    In an early Family Guy episode, the doofus dad rediscovers the joys of real life after accidentally knocking out the local transmitter in a car accident, leaving the town tv-free. But then the transmitter's repaired, and the family wearies of constantly being urged to go outside and have some fun. "Sure, Dad," says the daughter, settling in before the tube, "but maybe now it's time to watch other people have fun. Or get killed! Y'know, whatever's on."

    Family Guy family members, like all animated tv families right now, are white. They're also a truly awful family, and if they were black you can be sure that Spike Lee, among others, would protest. That's what happened with another clever new show on Fox, Eddie Murphy's The P.J.s, which was pulled from the fall schedule (the only new animated comedy not to make the lineup), although Fox promises it will be back for midseason. The P.J.s was roundly criticized as insulting to black ghetto dwellers?as indeed it was, but no more so than Family Guy is insulting to middle-class white Rhode Islanders. This is the sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't conundrum that can annoy those whose livelihoods are affected.

    A month ago, a black actor named Damon Standifer wrote to The Los Angeles Times complaining about how "self-appointed spokespeople for the black community" are one reason networks avoid shows with black casts these days: "If a show portrays wealthy black people, it's criticized for ignoring the plight of poor ones. If a show features poor black people, it's criticized for stereotyping black people as poor...In past years there were complaints that the tv show Seinfeld never featured a black lead. But honestly, which Seinfeld lead could have been cast as an African-American without drawing protests: the spastic, bug-eyed Kramer? The chronically unemployed, lazy George? The sexually promiscuous, self-centered Elaine? Had these characters been black, Seinfeld wouldn't have lasted one season."

    As it happens, the only Seinfeld character likely to be resurrected in a spin-off is black. Phil Morris, the actor who played the Johnnie Cochran-like Jackie Chiles, is currently talking to Seinfeld's production company, Castle Rock, about developing a new show starring himself as the fast-talking lawyer. Morris also has parlayed the Jackie Chiles character into a starring role in Honda's current tv campaign.

    Speaking of Seinfeld and how tv portrays minorities, that show (although I loved it) stuck in my craw when it insisted that, of its four obviously Jewish main characters, only Jerry Seinfeld was actually Jewish. This is an ancient tv tradition exemplified by shows like Columbo, in which Jewish actors and Jewish writers created characters who were always, mysteriously, Italian. (Like George Costanza. Right?it's an Italian thing to get in big arguments over marble rye.) And don't even get me started on the medical shows. Recently I read a statistic that something like one out of six doctors these days is Asian. But on Chicago Hope or ER, of course, they're always either white or black. 

    The last straw for me with Seinfeld was when a rabbi got a crush on Elaine, the ultimate Jewish princess, even though she was "not of his faith." Uh-huh. I called up Lori Jonas, Seinfeld's notoriously cranky publicist at the time, about this and got an earful of nutty spin-control.

    "It's not as if their names are Jewish," she informed me firmly.

    "Kramer?" I said.

    "Cosmo?" she said.

    Anyway, the dearth of black leading characters in the new fall season has led to a torrent of earnest, side-of-the-angels soul-searching in the media, especially after NAACP president Kweisi Mfume blasted the new season as "a virtual whitewash in programming" at his July 12 speech to the group's annual convention. That thumping sound you hear is The Los Angeles Times patting itself on the back for its umpteen-part "TV's Diversity Dilemma" coverage, which was actually well reported; the problem began when they hauled out the heavy thinkers.

    The usually sensible Howard Rosenberg, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning tv critic, concluded the series on July 25 with a self-congratulatory essay that began: "Just the other day, it seems?about 1980, actually?I was mounting a soapbox to say in print how rotten it was that no broadcast network had aired a prime-time drama series about blacks." Good for you, Howard! Except...doesn't that seem an odd soapbox to mount when the memory of shows like The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and Good Times was still fresh?

    But Rosenberg was no match in bathos for Mike Downey, the sportswriter turned lead L.A. Times news columnist. Downey, whose nickname among his colleagues is Y2K? (a reference to his rumored salary) has, you see, experienced Hollywood racism directly, even though he's white. First he wrote a script with a black lead character that never sold. Then he was asked to work on a film about Jackie Robinson, and the film never got made. (Unmentioned in Downey's column is that an excellent 1950 film called The Jackie Robinson Story already exists, which would be hard to improve upon, since for one thing it starred Jackie Robinson as himself.)

    "There are African American, Latino, Asian and Native American audiences and actors, waiting for something to watch, waiting for someplace to work," Downey concluded soggily. "They don't mind shows about white people. They grew up watching shows about white people. They just would like a few shows that aren't about white people." Mike Downey seems awfully sure about just what "they" would like?but then, of course, he's assuming that this would include a script featuring black characters written by a white guy named Mike Downey.

    But question any bit of this worthy attitude and you'll quickly be dismissed as an old meanie. Last year I called up the Writers Guild and asked why they publish separate directories for women writers, Latino writers and African American writers, but not for men writers or white writers. (Or, for that matter, gentile writers. I mean, why not just go all the way?) "These are outreach programs!" said Zara Buggs Taylor, the Guild's executive administrator for employment diversity, yelling into the speakerphone. "Do you believe we live in a colorblind society?"

    "No, but I really don't care what color or sex a writer is when I'm watching a show," I said. "I only care if it's good writing."

    Taylor was still on the speakerphone, but not for long. "I have to go!" she shouted. "Because I have tons of stuff to do if I'm going to open up employment opportunities for those writers that you don't care about!"

    I happen to know a producer of one of those 26 whites-only new shows, Rob Long, the cocreator (with his writing partner Dan Staley) of Love & Money, premiering on CBS this fall, Friday nights at 8:30 (you're welcome, Rob). "Yes, one of the bad white shows," Rob said amiably when I called him up. Love & Money is an Upstairs, Downstairs-type comedy about a young super (working-class Irish) who loves a young heiress (upper-class WASP) living in his Upper East Side building. "We're only talking about two families here," he added, beginning to sound a bit exasperated, "so what am I supposed to do? Of all the times in the business for black people to be complaining, now is the worst possible time. There are all these black shows. We are opposite a black sitcom, in fact, on the WB, so what do they want from me?"

    Staley-Long Productions have gotten a couple of shows past the pilot stage since leaving Cheers, where the writing team were coexecutive producers during that show's last season, while still in their twenties. The first was the stillborn Pig Sty, for UPN. The second was George & Leo, the Bob Newhart-Judd Hirsch vehicle that lasted one season on CBS. "First off," Rob said, "let's get a show on the air. Let's keep a show on the air. With George & Leo, what we liked about it was also what doomed it?that it was about two old guys." Even at CBS, known as the geriatric network, George & Leo skewed too old. As Rob put it: "Our demographics were awful."

    We spoke a few days before CBS' fall season press junket, and I wondered how Rob would respond if asked about being one of the new whites-only shows. "We'll be asked about it, I guarantee you," he said, "because by asking about it they can pretend they're doing socially conscious good work as they feast on the goodies and the handouts. And my response will be?try this out?that we're concerned about it, but there's only so much you can do. The thing that leaps out to me is demographic segregation. At least we've always done intergenerational shows."

    Actually, though, I guess we both underestimated what out-of-town Jaspers these junketeers are, because not only did no one bring up the "diversity dilemma" at the July 26 Love & Money press conference, there wasn't even one newsworthy question. Instead, starlet Paget Brewster (who plays the young heiress) was asked how she got her first name; someone else wanted to know if Brian Doyle-Murray (who plays the young super's Dad) still gets comments about Caddyshack. I thought about raising the topic myself, but decided that would have been unscientific, like Jane Goodall manipulating the behavior of apes instead of just observing it.

    "What do you want? They're entertainment journalists," said Rob equably as we sipped complimentary smoothies in the lobby afterwards. He admitted that he might have been a bit ticked if I'd started grilling him in public anyway. "I'd have said, 'What am I?on trial here?'" he added, only semi-jokingly. He also thanked me for not bringing up his latest National Review column, an un-p.c. gig he conveniently leaves off his official CBS bio. But the July 26 column is worth noting here, because it makes a cogent argument that tv content isn't as important as the fact that Americans watch way too much of it:

    "...people like their crappy entertainment culture, it makes a whole lot of money, and with a whole lot of money you can buy a very nice president... But assuming that family-hour programming returned to all television channels?broadcast and cable?would that be such a good thing? Does the fact that content is free of violence and sex mean it's okay to watch 18 hours of it a week? It is a strange era indeed when the concept of 'family hour' refers not to time spent with family but with time spent with television."

    It might seem odd for someone in the tv industry to argue for less tv viewing, but, as Rob told me, "it would be good for society and good for the business, by reducing inventory a little. If everyone were to watch fewer hours of tv the overall numbers would go down, but the value would go zooming up, because the attention would matter more."

    If you believe in the free market, it's hard to be convinced that a slate of new shows with all-white casts (most of which will end up canceled) is a serious social problem, especially when you consider the success of programs like Oprah or The Steve Harvey Show or Touched by an Angel. As Rob put it in his next column, titled "Kweisi and Me," "It's sort of like protesting a certain stock price. Whom do you send letters to? The market in general? That's an awful lot of cc's."

    A few weeks before Kweisi Mfume's NAACP speech, The New York Times ran a front-page story about the troubling discrepancy between black and white test scores, even among students from the same middle-to-upper-middle-class backgrounds. Buried around paragraph 64, on the jump, was this sad little fact: black teenagers watch three hours of tv a day, compared to white teens' one and a half hours per day. Now, that's a social problem. The best thing Mfume could do is tell his constituency to just turn the damn set off.