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Tuned In: CBS can't wait -- but it must -- for Bochco's inner-city hospital show

Monday, July 26, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- It must be tough for network officials to tout their new fall schedule when the most eagerly awaited show is actually a midseason replacement.

A few years ago The WB faced this dilemma with "Dawson's Creek," which the network previewed for TV critics in the summer but didn't premiere until January.

Now CBS finds itself in the same situation with "City of Angels," a medical drama from Steven Bochco with a predominantly African-American cast. Even without the NAACP protests over the lack of diversity in prime time, "City of Angels" would have been noteworthy because black dramas are so few and far between. CBS last made the attempt with the 1995 Joe Morton family drama "Under One Roof."

Although the pilot episode of "City of Angels" has yet to be shot, Bochco and fellow

Carnegie Mellon University graduate Blair Underwood met the press to discuss the series. Underwood will star as Dr. Ben Turner, acting chief of surgery, who discovers his new boss (Vivica A. Fox) is an old flame.

Bochco, who created the 1979 short-lived police drama, "Paris," starring James Earl Jones, said he recognizes the historic significance of "City of Angels," a show he's wanted to produce for 10 years.

"I'm conscious of the fact you don't see a lot of people doing cop musicals, because when we did it, it failed large," Bochco said. "I do have the sense that if this show succeeds, there will be many shows to follow that will seek to emulate the kind of work we're doing and the way we're doing it. If we don't, it becomes that much more difficult in an economically driven industry to encourage networks to take these kinds of chances."

While race and TV has become a dominating issue this summer, Bochco said his primary responsibility is to make an entertaining show. Paris Barclay, an African-American director who co-created "City of Angels" with Bochco and Nicholas Wootton, said the key is to create a show that appeals to a wide audience.

"One of the reasons these shows haven't worked in the past is because they've been too specific to the black experience every minute of every hour," Barclay said. "I love those shows, I relate to them, but I think it helps marginalize ourselves if we're looking for a broader audience. [Race] issues will come up, but it's primarily about a hospital."

Because the majority of the characters at this inner city hospital are African-American or Latino, Bochco said racism won't be their primary concern. "I think they're more concerned with the fact it's a county hospital that's underfunded, underequipped, and they're working to survive in a vast bureaucracy, in a politicized environment," Bochco said. "That said, the hospital is serving an inner-city community populated by a predominantly African-American population, so issues of race will inevitably begin to bleed through the fabric of the show. Hopefully that comes as a legitimate backwash of good storytelling. Anytime we try to build a story around social or political themes, we've got the tail wagging the dog."

CBS president Leslie Moonves said three-quarters of the "City of Angels" cast will be made up of minority actors and two-thirds of the behind-the-scenes crew will be minorities as well. He acknowledged CBS needs to continue to look at the issue of minorities in casting and plans to meet with NAACP leaders, but he didn't agree with their blanket pronouncement about the lack of diversity on TV this fall.

"We agree with the position that the racial composition of prime-time television needs to reflect the population as a whole," Moonves said. "But we do not think it's fair that the network that's home to Bill Cosby, Della Reese, Cheech Marin, Arsenio Hall and Sammo Hung be accused of not recognizing the minority audience."

Moonves said two of CBS's six new shows will have minorities in key roles. The summer sitcom "Thanks," about the first pilgrims in the New World, will feature Native Americans in some episodes after its Aug. 2 premiere. "One of the early episodes is about the first Thanksgiving," Moonves said. "Native Americans will be portrayed in a positive manner, certainly no more foolishly than the pilgrims who have already settled at Plymouth Rock."

DEJA VIEW: CBS has given the green light to six episodes of "Grapevine," a midseason series about the lives and loves of three Miami singles starring Kristy Swanson. The series is from writer/director David Frankel, but it's not entirely new. An earlier version with the same title -- also from Frankel -- aired on CBS in the summer of 1992 and starred Steven Eckholdt, Jonathan Penner and Lynn Clark. CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem said the series was ahead of its time in '92.

CBS ROCKS: Pop music sensation Ricky Martin ("Livin' La Vida Loca") will star in his first American network television special for CBS later this year. Several yet-to-be-announced guest stars will join Martin on the one-hour music special. Celine Dion and Shania Twain also will appear in separate CBS music specials before the end of 1999.

UPCOMING PLOTS: At a reception for the Writers Guild of America, scribes from various TV shows dropped hints about what will happen on their shows in the upcoming TV season.

Christopher Lloyd, executive producer of "Frasier," said Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) might finally get together, but not before each has their own relationship. Daphne will plan her wedding to Donnie and Niles will get a new love interest.

"It will be interesting to see how the two relationships run side-by-side and how they're likely to intersect," Lloyd said. "Don't be surprised if you see that resolution this season. We've had such amazing luck with that we didn't want to blow a good thing, but there have been so many times we've had to throw obstacles in their path so Niles couldn't show his hand. Maybe we've done that too much."

While conventional wisdom says you never allow two characters with sexual tension to get together until the end of a series, Lloyd feels "Frasier" might be able to pull it off because the show has broken the rules in other areas. He said its success, as a spin-off from "Cheers," broke the rule about spin-offs surviving.

Meanwhile, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) will not be in a relationship, instead he'll spend his time battling a new character at the radio station (a young woman yet to be cast) and he'll become like a mother to Daphne as she plans her wedding. Pittsburgh native Gretchen Berg, an executive story editor on "Beverly Hills, 90210," said that show will wind down in what's expected to be its final season. "They always keeping saying maybe there'll be another year, but this year there will be a lot of stuff for fans who have been watching for 10 years," Berg said. "There's going to be a lot of stuff that wraps things up, relationships that they want to see happen are going to happen."

AT THE MOVIES: "King of the Hill" executive producer Greg Daniels said the success of the "South Park" movie has inspired him and Mike Judge to pitch a "King of the Hill" movie to Fox studio executives.

"One of the things we've done in terms of the reality of the show is kept it kind of local and small," Daniels said. "Some of the things we're thinking about for the movie is to let a story escalate a little bigger and have it not all be in Texas."

Daniels said they've been thinking about the possibility for a while, because it would give them the opportunity to tell a longer, more ambitious story than the half-hour series would allow. Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," said a movie based on that series might happen sometime, too. "We're working so hard on 'The Simpsons" there's not a lot of hours left over in the day to do a movie," Groening said. "I'm sure there will be a movie one of these days, we just haven't figured out a way of doing it yet." Daniels and Judge also have a new one-hour, live action series in development with Fox. It's a comedy-drama set at a record label in Los Angeles.

Rob Owen is the Post-Gazette TV editor.

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