A couple weeks back, against a montage of mostly white models who looked like they were answering a casting call for J. Crew, Dawn Ostroff, entertainment president of The CW (that new UPN-WB mash-up) proclaimed: ”We will stay in touch with the [minority] market.”
It was a somewhat ironic, bold promise — and one the former UPN entertainment chief may have trouble fulfilling. Her old network always featured black actors more prominently than any other broadcaster (see: Girlfriends, One on One, Everybody Hates Chris, and Eve) . But with only 13 hours of primetime programming to fill — and 7.5 hours of returning shows virtually locked in — there are signs that black-produced and -fronted shows, particularly comedies, may be virtually absent from the CW slate.
”I wouldn’t say because of the merger that black sitcoms are dead,” says Eunetta Boone, the creator and exec producer of UPN’s One on One and Cuts. ”But they’re definitely dormant.”
And to African-American writers who could be out of a job, it might as well be the same thing. Unfortunately, they’ve been through this rigmarole before — twice. Executives at both Fox (with In Living Color and Roc) and The WB (The Jamie Foxx Show, The Steve Harvey Show) built their nascent networks with shows that catered to African-American audiences. Once they realized the limits this strategy imposed on ratings and profitability, they broadened their programming slate. Only UPN, which never found a breakout program that established another identity — like The Simpsons for Fox and Dawson’s Creek for The WB — remained true to its African-American base.
So why is it a problem that these shows are disappearing? Because aside from gigantic hits like American Idol and CSI, white and black viewing preferences continue to be polarized. Read the ratings list in reverse and you’ll get an idea of the top entertainment programs among blacks: Girlfriends (No. 165 overall; No. 3 among black households), All of Us (166; 4), Everybody Hates Chris (146; 5), Half & Half (167; 7), and One on One (170; 11). ”If we lose Half & Half and Girlfriends and end up with more How I Met Your Mothers — as successful as that show is — it’s a great loss,” says Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau.
It’s of even greater concern to black writers, who, generally speaking, are only hired to work on shows that feature largely black casts. (The notable exception is Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive producer of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.) If those shows go away, the thinking goes, so will the jobs. ”When we got the news about the merger, it was a little heartbreaking,” says Antonia March, a writer on the Fox comedy The Bernie Mac Show, the last remaining sitcom with a black lead on a Big Four network. ”There are, like, five or six black shows. There are going to be some black people out of work.” March has reason to be concerned herself. Mac’s chances of renewal next fall are iffy at best: Because of preemptions and time-period switches, the show doesn’t even rate in the top 20 among black audiences.