''Moesha,'' among others, proves that smaller networks can draw with niche programming

By A.J. Jacobs
June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The biggest story to come out of the networks’ fall previews wasn’t Ted Danson’s new toupee-free hairdo. It was the apparent segregation of the networks. Forty-three years since the development of color television, the tube appears to be going black and white again.

The tale thus far: As the Big Four edge further away from ethnic programming (the combined NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox fall schedules have just six minority-themed shows), fledgling networks UPN and the WB are setting themselves apart with strong African-American slates; of their 21 shows for fall, 11 center on black characters. Call it ghettoization or balkanization — or just good business. As UPN’s minihit Moesha proved, the little guys can thrive on what the majors leave behind. ”We have to counterprogram, so we went after [black] talent in a big way,” says Mike Sullivan, UPN Entertainment president.

The major networks argue they are in the business of entertaining the mainstream, not a particular niche. But clearly they are feeling the heat. NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, for one, has insisted he isn’t giving up on nonwhite programming, despite a fall lineup that lacks a single African-American-themed show: ”Diversity is extremely important to NBC and to me as an individual.”

Be that as it may, television’s increased separatism highlights other race-related trends in the industry:

Where are the dramas? Quite literally, this is not a laughing matter. Yes, Fox’s New York Undercover has a multiethnic cast, and black characters appear in mainstream dramas, but overall, blacks have no one-hour shows to call their own. This is nothing new: In TV’s history, there’s never been a breakout African-American show without a laugh track. Recent flops include Under One Roof, Snoops, and The Cosby Mysteries.

The reasons are as twisted as an X-File. One obvious explanation: Showbiz has always been more comfortable when African-Americans play it for laughs. In TV, that’s been true from the first black-themed show (ABC’s 1950-53 mammy-com Beulah) right up to fall’s Homeboys in Outer Space (one of UPN’s six black shows, none of which are dramas). ”Comedies have a great track record,” says Sullivan. ”Success dictates where you go.”

The sitcom bias, say some, hurts even those black dramas that do struggle onto the schedule. The networks ”tend to bury the shows they believe won’t work,” says Thomas Carter, creator of the critically adored but quickly canceled Under One Roof. ”It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But low network expectation isn’t the only hurdle. White audiences may not take to black dramas, but frequently neither do black viewers. The Cosby Mysteries, for example, scored half as well as Martin with black viewers. ”It could be that black sitcoms are more about black lifestyle,” says Steve Sternberg, a BJK&E Media senior partner. ”Mysteries wasn’t really a black show, per se.”

David Mills, NYPD Blue‘s sole black writer, theorizes it’s not the genre, as such, that’s unpopular. It’s that no drama has hit upon the right formula. ”It took Spike Lee to convince Hollywood that black movies can make money,” he says. ”There hasn’t yet been a Spike Lee in dramatic television. And every time a drama doesn’t click, it gets harder.”