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Tuned In: Dueling time slots for 'Bernie Mac,' 'My Wife and Kids' bemoaned

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Showbiz showdowns, whether they're TV programs with a similar concept or time slot, are routine, but this fall there will be an abundance of them.

In addition to The WB and ABC shows about thirtysomethings who return to high school, ABC and CBS will have new medical dramas battling one another at 10 p.m. Wednesdays. But the most politically charged face-off is between Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show" and ABC's "My Wife and Kids" Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

Because there are so few series with predominantly African-American casts on television, some see the positioning of these two programs against each other as more than unfortunate.

"I was shocked," said Damon Wayans, star of "My Wife and Kids," which aired in that Wednesday night time slot the past season. "I thought it was a joke and it turned out to be reality and I didn't like it."

Wayans agrees with ABC's decision to stand its ground and not move his sitcom out of the way of "Bernie Mac," which has received Emmy awards and heaps of press attention.

"I think all the work is definitely ahead of Bernie, not me," Wayans said. "I'm definitely going to have to elevate my game. It's like he's coming to my house ... [To move it would] look like we're scared. We're not scared, we're offended. There's a difference."

For his part, Bernie Mac said it's a fight between the networks, not between the stars.

"That was a business decision that was made with Fox," Mac said. "My last thing is to hurt anybody or take away from anybody. I can't build myself by beating somebody down."

"Bernie Mac Show" executive producer Larry Wilmore said the issue is unfairly seen through the prism of race.

"Because you have two shows that have the same racial makeup, doesn't necessarily mean they have the same creative makeup," said Wilmore, who added that issues of race matter less to "The Bernie Mac Show" than do other more universal elements.

"To just think of our show in the light of being an African-American show kind of marginalizes what 'The Bernie Mac Show' is," he said. "I've always thought of it as an American show about American parenting, an American family, primarily. The fact that we're black is really secondary."

Both shows can survive, Wilmore said, and he sees no insidious plan by Fox to kill a rival black show.

"Is it a sad situation? Is it unfortunate? Yeah, I guess it is ... but it's hard to fault a network for being competitive."

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said moving "Bernie" to 8 p.m. was a business move. He compared it to ABC's decision to program the season premiere of "NYPD Blue" last fall against the series premiere of Fox's "24," which he felt damaged "24" from the get-go.

"Whether casts are black, white, green, yellow, purple, we're in a business here," Grushow said, though he added that he understands the concern. He said Fox looked at statistics for "My Wife and Kids" and "Bernie Mac" and found that 86 percent of the audience that typically watches "Bernie Mac" doesn't watch "Wife and Kids." Only 25 percent of African-American viewers watch both series.

Wayans doesn't buy that argument.

"It's the same audience, and they're lying if they say it's not," Wayans said. "Me and Bernie go out on tour together and the same audiences go to see both of us.

"I will not take joy if we beat 'em. It sickens me to my stomach, because that's a war I don't want to win, but I have to."

'24' tops TCA Awards

Newcomers took home the majority of the Television Critics Association awards Saturday night, including Fox's "24," which won awards for best new program and program of the year.

Executive producers Bob Cochran and Joel Surnow said the show's second season, which premieres Oct. 29 with a commercial-free episode, will pick up a year after the events in the first season.

Sen. Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) has been elected president and his estranged wife (Penny Johnson Jerald), the show's Lady MacBeth, will be back, but not right away.

Counter-Terrorism Unit mole Nina (Sarah Clarke) will appear and new characters join the cast, including Sarah Gilbert ("Roseanne") as a CTU agent and Sarah Wynter ("Lost Souls") as a possible love interest for widower Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said that since the murder of Bauer's wife in May's season finale, Jack and his daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) have become estranged and he's left CTU. Palmer calls him back to work.

Bernie Mac won the TCA Award for individual achievement in comedy, and his self-titled Fox sitcom took home the award for comedy series.

HBO's "Six Feet Under" won for best drama series, and Michael Chiklis of FX's "The Shield" won for individual achievement in drama.

"This is one small step for man, one giant leap for basic cable," Chiklis said.

"SpongeBob SquarePants" won for outstanding achievement in children's programming, Bill Cosby received the career achievement award, and "The Simpsons" was the first recipient of the TCA Heritage Award.

HBO's "Band of Brothers" was named best movie or miniseries, and PBS's "Frontline" won for outstanding achievement in news and information.

Fox follies

Even as Fox cleans up in critics' awards and Emmy nominations, the network is coming off a rough season ratings-wise.

"From the events that delayed much of our launch into November to the depressed ratings of some of our key series, it definitely was a challenging year for us," said Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman. "Unlike last year, our aggressive summer strategy is keeping the lights on and ensuring that our fall shows get exposure throughout July and August."

With viewers tuning in to "American Idol" in high enough numbers to make that series a summer hit, Fox execs think their promotions for fall series will reach a larger audience and drive those viewers to seek out new Fox programs. Berman and Fox's Sandy Grushow both blamed last year's failures on the lack of promotion. It particularly hurt Friday night drama "Pasadena," which aired only three times.

" 'Pasadena' is one of the painful experiences that we had last year and primarily it was a show that suffered from the fact that we had little to no circulation for women last summer," Berman said. "We had no one watching the show, no way to promote the show and it was programmed after 'Dark Angel,' not a show particularly female-friendly."

Grushow was more blunt.

"It was probably a fool's errand from the get-go," Grushow said. "What's somewhat ironic is that had the network launched 'American Idol' last summer, the story might have been completely different with 'Pasadena' on Friday night. As it was, it was an island unto itself. I don't think anybody knew it was there and in some ways it was doomed from the start."

In developing new series this fall, programmers kept the failure of "Pasadena" and the less-than-hit ratings for "24" in mind.

"A deliberate change was to make sure that our development this season was not as serialized as it had been the year before," Berman said.

Kelley's 'club'

Out with the old, in with the new. "Ally McBeal" is history, but David E. Kelley has another female-lead lawyer show airing Monday nights on Fox this fall.

"girls club" -- yes, the title is not capitalized for no particular reason, Kelley said -- follows the exploits of three young lawyers in San Francisco. Played by Gretchen Mol ("Rounders"), Chyler Leigh ("That '80s Show") and Kathleen Robertson ("Beverly Hills, 90210"), the tone of "girls club" will land somewhere between "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" -- and be more realistic than both, Kelley said.

" 'The Practice' is ostensibly reality based, but of course it isn't because murder trials begin every single week and we take a lot of dramatic license," he said. "We won't be taking license on this show. This will really focus on the reality of what it's like to be a young associate in a big law firm, to be a young female associate in a male corporate world."

Hence the title.

Kelley said the show will be a challenge because of the emphasis on the characters and not their cases.

"It's not something I've totally figured out in terms of storytelling," Kelley said. "We're not asking the audience to invest in the cases, which is going to be a bit of a trick. We're going into the courtroom, we'll hear the process and the defense attorneys ask questions, but it's not about the content of the answers as it is what's going on with our people."

Leaving 'Boston Public'

When Fox's Monday night drama "Boston Public" returns Oct. 21 with new episodes, several characters will be gone.

One-armed teacher's aide Meredith Peters (Kathy Baker) isn't yet slated to reappear and teacher Lauren Davis (Jessalyn Gilsig) and office aide Louisa Fenn (Rashida Jones) will disappear entirely.

In their place, several new characters will be added. Zach Fisher (Jon Abrahams) is a new science teacher. Cara DeLizia ("So Weird") returns as Marcie, a student who will work as a student aide to Principal Harper (Chi McBride). Joey McIntyre, a former member of New Kids on the Block, will appear in the first three episodes as a teacher closer in age and attitude to the students than to his fellow teachers.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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