Net's exex promise to maintain penchant for diversity
When the WB and UPN announced last month their plans to fold operations, African-American producers, helmers and scribes were just as surprised as the rest of the industry.The departure of both netlets left several creatives scrambling to find out how committed the CW — the new network emerging from the ashes of the WB and UPN — would be to African-American and other minority talent. “Obviously it’s a situation we’re watching closely,” says Vic Bullock, executive director of the NAACP’s Hollywood chapter. “It’s one that has caused concern among people in our community, from showrunners to craft services.” It’s too soon to tell how the change might impact the faces of primetime. But execs behind the CW have promised to maintain those weblets’ penchant for diversity. “In all discussions so far, we are hoping to keep (UPN’s) Monday night lineup or something similar intact,” CBS Paramount Network TV Entertainment Group prexy Nancy Tellem said soon after the CW announcement was made. “We’re not only looking for younger demos, but also looking at the diversity of the slate.” The CW announcement temporarily put on ice next season’s development at UPN and the WB, although one urban-skewing pilot — UPN’s untitled “Girlfriends” spinoff — had already gotten a greenlight. The pilot, which will air as an episode of “Girlfriends” this season, revolves around the significant others of professional athletes. Aldis Hodge, Coby Bell, Cynthia Addai Robinson, Hosea Chanchez and Wendy Raquel Robinson star. NAACP officials — who closely monitor issues of diversity in primetime — take the “Girlfriends” spinoff as a good sign that the CW won’t turn its back on minorities. The org is also in close contact with CW brass, who have alleviated some of the NAACP’s concerns, Bullock says. “We’re in dialogue with CBS and UPN, and we’re encouraged by (incoming CW entertainment prexy) Dawn Ostroff’s track record,” Bullock says. “If the CW were to develop more one-hours with African-American and minority leads, that would be exciting.” Ostroff herself points out that programming that appeals to black auds has been a major achievement at UPN, “and we intend to carry that over to the new network.” “In fact, executives involved with the CW clearly stated in the network’s opening announcement that an ongoing commitment to serving a diverse audience is a priority,” Ostroff says. “When the new CW schedule emerges this May, that commitment will be visible.” As the only broadcast web scheduling a block of African-American-themed programs, insiders say the CW should be able to tap into advertiser budgets reserved specifically for that aud. Also, from a political standpoint, the CW parents CBS and Warner Bros. would catch heat if they dropped the shows — something they’d love to avoid, given the already complicated process of shutting down two networks. As the major networks moved away from black-themed sitcoms in the late 1990s, both the WB and UPN picked up the slack. The Frog went first, launching with sitcoms such as “The Wayans Bros.,” “The Parent ‘Hood” and “Sister Sister.” “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” soon followed. UPN then joined the party, adding shows such as “Moesha” and “In the House.” Both webs were taking a page out of the Fox playbook: As an emerging network, one of the quickest ways to garner ratings is to target young viewers with urban-skewing comedies. (Fox did it with “In Living Color” and “Martin.”) But whereas UPN stuck with the strategy, the WB moved away from urban comedies once it got a few hit dramas on its hands. Tellingly, the WB never struck it big with laffers (save “Reba”) again. UPN sitcoms expected to make the cut in the new CW include critical darling “Everybody Hates Chris” as well as “Eve.” Those on the bubble include “One on One,” “Half & Half” and “Girlfriends.” “We do know if we uniformly lost all the minority programming on UPN, it would be a great loss,” Bullock says. “But we’re hopeful that the execs at the CW will make decisions that will be sensitive to that — and smart enough for the marketplace.” But while opportunities on sitcoms with predominantly African-American casts could very well shrink, the success of multiracial ensemble casts on hit hourlongs like “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” could be signaling the kind of true tube diversity the NAACP has been looking for all along. Already, pilots like ABC’s “Daybreak,” which landed Taye Diggs, and CBS’ “Edison,” with John Leguizamo, have cast minorities in top roles. “When you look at the TV landscape now, most of the diversity comes through ensemble casts,” Bullock says.