Cleveland Brown favors gentle words, and few words at that. He likes yellow T-shirts and baths. He is also fiercely proud of his African-American heritage, as evidenced by his ''Two Decades of Dignity'' board game and that nice talk he had with a racist cop about how a black bowling ball might feel when surrounded by white pins. It's a good thing, too, because Cleveland Brown is shaping up as network television's great black hope for the 2008-09 season he's the only minority character anchoring a new series on the Big Five networks. Granted, his Family Guy spin-off, The Cleveland Show, didn't even make it onto the fall schedule (it's slated for midseason). Yes, Cleveland himself is merely a figment of animation. And true, the person who provides his voice, Mike Henry, is actually white. But hey, it's a start, right?
These days, the networks need to ensure that even their cartoons of color count. After a period of making a public effort to focus on diversity in their casting kickstarted by an NAACP outcry over the white TV landscape in 1999 the networks have clearly started to lose that focus, and not just when it comes to African-Americans. Today the current prime-time lineup, including fall's 14 new scripted shows, is looking alarmingly pale. According to an Entertainment Weekly study of scripted-programming casts for the upcoming fall 2008 season, each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) of the United States population, as per the 2007 census estimate. And all of the networks are representing considerably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent, with The CW whose only lead Latina star, JoAnna Garcia, will be playing a white character named Megan Smith on Surviving the Filthy Rich registering just 3.8 percent. After the quiet and unceremonious departure this winter of eight-season hit Girlfriends (the No. 15 show in all prime time among African-American audiences), The CW's black comedy block (inherited from predecessor UPN) has shrunk to just two sitcoms: critical darling Everybody Hates Chris (No. 29 among African-Americans) and The Game (No. 7 among African-Americans), which have both been relegated to the dead zone known as Friday nights this fall. And with very few exceptions (like black actress Niecy Nash, who costars with Jerry O'Connell in Fox's hotel sitcom Do Not Disturb), spring's annual presentation of the new lineups looked largely like a parade of Caucasian stars. When CBS, for example, introduced the main actors from their new series to the advertising community in May, it went something like this: Kyle Bornheimer white. Simon Baker white. Jay Mohr white. Rufus Sewell white. Elizabeth Reaser white.
The NAACP has taken notice: It will release a new study later this month titled ''Out of Focus, Out of Sync Take 4,'' which calls for diversity not only on screen but also behind the scenes, where decisions are made and story lines are hatched. ''1 out of every 3 persons in the United States is a minority,'' reads the report, an advance excerpt of which was provided to EW. ''One could argue that a third of all those working in Hollywood should be a minority. However...their presence is not accurately represented on-air and for the most part, their stories are secondary or non-existent. Behind the camera, the challenges facing minorities have been even greater and traditionally more difficult to overcome.... It is unconscionable and unacceptable that there is no new African American sitcom, or family drama for that matter, currently in the fall line up on any of the major broadcast networks.'' Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP's Hollywood bureau, says plainly, ''The trend definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.''
NEXT PAGE: ''Do I want to see any more shows where someone has a sassy black friend? No, because I'm nobody's sassy black friend. I just want to see shows in which people get to be people and that look like the world we live in.''