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Lack of minority actors on new TV shows raises questions

Saturday, July 17, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- The broadcast networks won't begin their dog and pony shows until next week, but questions about the dearth of minority characters on new shows premiering this fall are running rampant at cable presentations during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Chris Albrecht, president of original programming for HBO, said it's a simple business decision the broadcast networks have made in a competitive environment.

"Each of the networks have decided who their constituency is, and they are spending their money against that constituency," he said. "I can only assume that they look at minority segments of the audience as just that: minority segments. It seems to me they've made a business decision to spend against where they'll get the biggest return for their clients, who happen to be the advertisers. I place no value judgment against their business decision; it just seems to be a very simple one."

Unlike the broadcast networks, HBO features minority actors in several of its series ("Oz," "Arli$$") and especially in its made-for-cable movies. Next month the network will air "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" starring Halle Berry. In December, Forest Whitaker stars in "Witness Protection."

"I understand the disappointment of not seeing more people of color on prime-time network television," Berry said. "But I'm also an actress who has turned down several roles on television, so I'm one of the chosen ones."

Black Entertainment Television will try to fill the void with stories of "romance, passion and adventure" as it prepares a series of made-for-cable films under the BET Arabesque Films banner.

"I've done three feature films, but I've done four original films for cable," said actor Khalil Kain, star of an upcoming BET feature. "The opportunities for actors of color are definitely stronger in the cable arena."

BET president Robert Johnson said this will be the first time African-American business leaders and creative types have come together to make movies knowing full well the economic realities of the marketplace. "We've got the lowest ad rates of any network that's 20-years-old, and that's simply because of the nature of the discrimination in this country against minority business," Johnson said. "There's no secret about that." Consequently, BET's movies will be made for $850,000, far less than broadcast networks pay for TV movies. Even most one-hour dramas on the networks cost more than $1 million per episode.

Johnson said broadcast network executives feel pressure to deliver shows for which advertisers will want to buy ads, shows "that will deliver a white audience that the advertisers value more."

Yet, one of the whitest shows in recent memory, NBC's "Seinfeld," may yield a spin-off with an African-American lead. Phil Morris, who played Johnnie Cochran-like lawyer Jackie Chiles, appeared on a BET panel and revealed a series based on his character is in the works.

"What that says is -- if you're funny, if you're good, if you're strong, you cannot be denied," Morris said. "Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld will be the executive producers/creators of the show, and this is the first spin-off from this show that was taken to task over not having adequate black representation."

A spokesman for Castle Rock Television, which produced "Seinfeld," told The Los Angeles Times that David and Seinfeld have given the show their blessing, and the search is on for a writer to bring the series to fruition.

CHER AND CHER ALIKE: Cher, who will perform live in concert on HBO Aug. 29, said she laughs at press accounts that conclude she's "reinvented herself" again.

"If you do a project people like, all of a sudden it's new and you become new with it," she said. "I'm just the same old, same old."

And so are some of the Cher impersonators. Cher hired one drag queen to appear on stage with her, but she said it was an eerie experience because "he does me so well that it's kind of spooky.

"It's been 35 years of drag queens, so I'm a connoisseur," Cher said.

SYNDICATED CRANKS: Richard Simmons is known for getting testy with David Letterman, and Louie Anderson, is, well, kind of a grump. Both have new shows premiering this fall.

Simmons is hosting a syndicated series called "Dream Maker," in which he grants wishes to ordinary folks. Anderson headlines a new incarnation of the classic game show "Family Feud."

At a "Family Feud" press conference, Anderson wondered aloud whether Simmons would fulfill one particular dream: "What, is he going to get hit by a car in the first episode?"

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