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White Wash

Could a ’70s hit like ‘Sanford and Son’ even get on the air in 1999? Given the shocking lack of minorities on Big Four shows, only if the stars were white

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If you happen to catch the promos for NBC’s new drama West Wing, you’ll see that the network is unveiling a juicy portrayal of an Oval Office occupied by a liberal-leaning president. Except, of course, when it comes to his inner circle. No blacks. No Hispanics. No Asians.

Suffice it to say something has gone awry when last season’s short-lived laughingstock, UPN’s The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, painted a more progressive picture of minorities in the White House. But that’s just another example of the most alarming development of the 1999-2000 TV schedule: the near-total lack of color on network shows. ”I’ve never seen it where even African-American extras can’t get work,” says Holly Robinson Peete, star of The WB’s For Your Love. ”Now, that’s sad.” This dire state of affairs has prompted the NAACP to threaten lawsuits and boycotts, and its president, Kweisi Mfume, to lash out: ”When people all across America watch the new prime-time shows scheduled for this fall’s lineup, they will see a virtual whitewash in programming.”

What they won’t see is equally disturbing. While there are no leads of color on the Big Four’s 26 new shows (and only a handful of regulars), Hollywood behind the scenes looks even whiter than Fargo in February — which, in turn, breeds that endless cycle of on-camera selfsameness. ”It continues to baffle me,” sighs Moesha cocreator Ralph Farquhar, ”why it’s not good business practice to reflect the population of the country in your entertainment vehicles.”

So here we stand, a few ticks short of the new millennium, wondering: Why can’t TV attract a racially diverse audience, like it did with The Jeffersons and Good Times in the ’70s, or The Cosby Show and Diff’rent Strokes in the ’80s? And why aren’t minorities movin’ on up — or into the apartments of the people on Friends? The answers may lie in the industry’s most popular excuses:

It’s the Economics, Stupid

The business of tv is ruled by a simple dictum: Get the audience that advertisers want. The consequence: ”The major networks have forgone the mass audience for a niche of young, urban, white people,” notes Sandy Grushow, president of Twentieth Century Fox TV, the leading supplier of network series. ”Hence, the shows they schedule will be a reflection of that.” Crunch a few numbers and you’ll see that the nets aren’t exactly rewarded for promoting diversity:

1 NBC, the only network to make a profit last year, also boasts the whitest programming.

2 The WB’s Felicity draws similar numbers of 18- to 49-year-olds as the net’s two highest-rated black series, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. But last season, Felicity commanded about $80,000 per 30-second commercial while Messrs. Harvey and Foxx each drew less than $40,000 for an equivalent spot.

3 The WB lost 20 percent of its black 18- to 49-year-old viewers last season, yet will earn record ad revenue this fall.

”Most valuable to a network are upscale audiences,” sums up one media buyer, ”and typically a black sitcom doesn’t deliver that. It’s a business decision.” If it is strictly business, then why would none of the ad execs EW interviewed go on record? Because the position they’re defending is uncomfortably close to being racist: White viewers are worth more than black viewers. And the studios share a similarly narrow view: Networks generate less ad money from ”black” shows, so they pay less to the studios. In addition, potential revenues from reruns and international sales of black series are smaller. ”I got messages saying ‘Don’t do those shows,”’ confirms a former high-ranking Warner Bros. TV exec. ”The syndication guys are afraid to develop these shows. They feed that fear back to the corporate bosses, who send the message to development.”