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On The Air: NAACP, Annie and More...

The latest news from the TV beat

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Sweeping Changes

Remember that boycott the NAACP planned for November sweeps? Well, it didn’t come to pass, but that doesn’t mean the advocacy group (which is seeking more diversity in the TV biz) has let the Big Four off the hook. In fact, last week the NAACP made recommendations as to how the nets can increase minority presence both on screen and behind the scenes. Although ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox have stepped up minority casting in prime time (African-American characters were added to ABC’s Wasteland and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; and after its lily-white pilot, NBC’s The West Wing has gone out of its way to cast black supporting actors), so far the TV writers’ ranks look shockingly monochromatic. Of the 839 scribes employed by prime-time TV shows this fall, the NAACP counted only 55 blacks, 11 Latinos, and 3 Asians. ”No school teaches what [we] do for a living,” says one black producer, who wished to remain anonymous. ”A certain apprenticeship has to occur. You have to [spend] hours in the trenches.” The problem is, networks and studios have been lax about mentoring minorities. Still, the producer notes, ”I don’t know anyone in any part of this business who is overtly racist.”

Although the nets are safe for November, the NAACP won’t rule out the possibility of a boycott for January and February. But do such tactics actually work? A call for a ”brownout” of network TV by several Latino groups failed to muster much attention in September, and who could forget how boycott threats from outraged conservatives actually translated into huge ratings for Fox’s Married…With Children in the late ’80s? ”What’s going to drive this train are economics,” says TV director/producer Anita Addison, who is black. ”If the NAACP can prove that black, Asian, and Hispanic dollars are critical to advertisers, and if advertisers start putting pressure on the networks, we’ll see more sincere efforts.”

Pinning Him Down

This should have Lee Strasberg rolling in his grave: An industry source says CBS, Fox, and UPN are all keen to sign up the thespian talents of ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin—the WWF star who’s proved he can memorize scripts one day (as undercover cop Jake Cage on Nash Bridges) and pulverize bad guys the next (on UPN’s WWF Smackdown!). ”You’d be hard-pressed to find actors who can fill 16,000-seat arenas,” says Nash creator Carlton Cuse. ”With his following, the next logical step is acting. He has a real affinity for the process.”

And chances are Austin won’t be the only grappler whose name pops up at network pitch meetings: The WWF also sees prime-time potential in The Rock (who guested on That ’70s Show last season), Edge, and that she-devil Chyna. ”Our guys are tremendously versatile,” says WWF senior VP of marketing Jim Byrne. ”Wherever they go, audiences will follow.”

Star of Tomorrow

Who said anything about a hard-knock life for Alicia Morton? Before Annie even hit the air Nov. 7, ABC closed a deal with the tyke in the title role. ”She has all the presence of an actor you want on a TV show,” says the net’s senior VP of casting, Gene Blythe. ”She could be on TGIF or in a great family show. Who knows?” Morton certainly knows how to draw a crowd: The TV musical attracted 26.3 million viewers—helping ABC to its best Sunday night in nearly two years.

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