Television can't commit to ''The Hughleys'' -- Despite the success of many black shows, networks are still hesitant to renew

April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ah, springtime. A time of renewal, especially in the TV industry. Over at ABC, ratings underachiever Sports Night (ranked 64th for the season) has already been invited back for another year. And the creatively lacking Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (42nd) has gotten another order. But here’s the strange thing: At press time, the network’s highest-rated new sitcom this season, The Hughleys (37th), starring black stand-up D.L. Hughley, was still sweating things out.

”Our show has worked better than any other new ABC show, and we’ll be the last one they pick up,” says Hughley. Actually, he should consider himself lucky — odds are his sitcom will return, making him one of the few black leads on any network. And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The networks are wrapping up their pilot season; of the 120 or so shows being considered for the upcoming year, so far a grand total of four have black ensembles or leads: an urban hospital drama produced by Steven Bochco for CBS; a spin-off of UPN’s Brandy sitcom Moesha titled Mo’Nique; a Coolio vehicle on UPN called Daddio; and a WB comedy starring stand-up Nick Cannon.

Of course, this isn’t a new issue. The lack of diversity in programming has been a hot topic for the past few years. What is new, given the evidence of the pilot orders, is that the networks seem to have stopped worrying about the problem. ”They have given in to niche marketing,” says Ralph Farquhar, creator of Moesha and Fox’s short-lived South Central. ”They don’t attempt to sell shows with minority themes as crossovers.”

Indeed, though the success of such programs as The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air once had executives convinced that black stars could have crossover appeal, that no longer seems to be the case (except on rare occasions, as in this year’s hit The PJs, which, notably, is an animated show). Blame it on new upstarts: First Fox, then UPN and The WB consciously went after black audiences, leading the Big Three to just abandon the market. The result was a de facto segregation of programming. ”I call it ethnic cleansing,” says Larry Wilmore, cocreator and exec producer of The PJs. (None of the networks would comment on the record for this story, except for The WB’s president, Susanne Daniels, who simply says: ”We try to cast multiethnically. You shouldn’t think we’re just looking for white leads.”)

So rather than develop new black shows, the networks seem content to focus on integrating casts — or as execs like to say, ”broadening” a show’s appeal. A successful example is NBC’s Homicide, which boasts a diverse cast — led until last year by Andre Braugher — but is rarely dubbed a ”black” drama. ”The reality of life in Baltimore dictated that,” says executive producer Tom Fontana. ”TV should reflect the population, and that’s what we tried to do in Homicide.”

On the other hand, comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from a proposed Fox sitcom last summer because the network asked him to add more whites to the cast. ”It’s pandering,” Peter Tolan, who was executive producer on that show, says of broadening.

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