Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.


  • Patience Will Lead to Racial Diversity

    I agree that because the CW’s bulk of programming will be taken from both networks, mainly the WB, the network’s programming will not have much racial diversity resulting in a drop of viewers of both networks. The WB has no African-American shows or stars and UPN is more devoted to African-Americans. In the future, after CW has hopefully changed its name and dropped a few of its current shows, it would be nice to see a show that is of predominantly mixed race and doesn’t have a “special episode” or brings up the topic of race at all.

  • All You Need Is The CW

    Until the schedule comes out, it is really too soon to say anything. If, for instance, they alternate “black” shows and “white” shows each half hour, they may keep the viewers from the previous half hour, which could essentially double their audience. It really all depends on how they decide to arrange the programming. Who knows, maybe they’ll even bring back some classics, like Homeboys In Outer Space. Maybe The CW will bridge the racial gap that has existed in a America for too long!

    Here’s to the CW and to a better future for America!

  • As a student of television I’ve been repeated taught to be able to look at these situations from two different perspectives. The first is one of idealism, how we think things should be. In this perspective yes it is a horrible thing that it is clear from just looking at the schedules to see that the dedication to African-American programming is more then likely going to fade away in favor of the WB’s teen mantra. But looking at it from a business perspective, UPN on its own wasn’t working and this wasn’t the first network theme they tried. In the beginning they were the scifi action station and then dipped into the WB canceled bin a little while later. It’s admirable that they have tried to be the network they are but it wasn’t working and they are trying to be stronger by joining a network with the same problem, in hopes to save what they do have. On a personal note after reading about the merger it seemed to me like the WB was just trying to add Veronica Mars to their teen-girl line up.

  • The end of UPN

    I’m hestitant to comment on the quality and cultural value of the shows being cancelled because I’m not familiar with much of UPN’s programming. However, as a gay male, I find myself frustrated with the lack of realistic gay characters on television and so I understand the struggle just to have a presence on network television. That being said, I’m not sure that the merger is a bad thing. Shows that did make the cut (Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends) are likely to gain wider exposure on CW.

    I believe the watershed great black television series has yet to be invented, and I also believe that UPN was not the network model that would have lead to such a show. Instead, I think it will be very interesting to see what shows are developed in the future for FOX and CW in response to Cartoon Network’s hugely popular The Boondocks. That is a show worth keeping an eye on.

  • Just have faith that someone knows what they’re doing

    The best that we can hope for is that CW is aware that this is an issue. When UPN and The WB decided to merge, I’m sure that this was brought up. What benefit does UPN have in becoming CW if none of its programs will make the transition? I believe that the shows that will truly suffer at the ones that are currently being developed for The WB. Will there be room for a Smallville spinoff on the new network, or will it just be put back on the shelf?

    On second thought, this whole decision was made so quickly, does anyone for either network really know what’s going on at all?

  • diminishing diversity

    As a tween I experienced the birth of the WB. It was a network that had several diverse sitcoms: The Wayan’s Bros., Nick Freno, Steve Harvey, and Jaime Foxx as well as it’s Dawson’s Creek and Buffy. Although it started that way I noticed the diversity started to dwindle down until there was no more color. Fox had a similar experience in the early 90’s. I have a feeling with the merger many African-American shows will only be kept on for awhile until going the way of the dinosaurs.

  • Drowning Diversity

    Thanks all for comments (and keep ’em coming). My concern, Steve, is that the reason the merger is occurring is because UPN isn’t, in business terms, “knowing what it is doing.” Its current slate of programs has lost a lot of money, and the channel’s dedication is to the money, not the programs, i’m quite sure. The sad thing is that, as Lisa suggests, many of its diverse programs (despite great popularity with African American audiences) are losing money. So expect to see them jettisoned.

    (And if I’m jumping the gun, and am wrong, I really hope I am, and challenge Ostroff and CW to prove me wrong in style).

    Ultimately, I think Brandon has his finger on what is really needed: better mixed cast shows. The UPN comedies are vulnerable precisely because they are segregated, and hence attract huge audiences of African Americans, but tiny audiences beyond this demographic.

    As to the idea that the real loser will be Aquaman, the Smallville spinoff, to be blunt: (a) i’m less concerned about letting down the gilled Americans than I am about letting down African-Americans; and (b) while I like Smallville, the spinoff hardly seems to be a bold moment in TV programming (artistically or otherwise. The actor who played him in Smallville was terrible), so I’m quite happy to see it drown.

  • Give and Take

    Though it’s sad that many good shows will be lost with the creation of the CW, the show’s that do stay on will reach a much larger audience. Besides, more competition admist the major networks will probably lead to better programming. In regards to racial diversity in primetime, I think it’s been getting gradually better for quite some time now. And with the CW, more African American shows will be seen nationally, which is definitely a good thing in terms of working towards diversity. In regards to minorities having to play cliche characters in future shows on the CW, I think that just depends on the quality of the writing. The fact that the CW is now a major network means that the material needs to be top notch.

  • Producers of ‘colour’?

    I’m surprised that a key point has not been mentioned, even in passing, in the discussion about african-american-geared shows being produced. The majority of producers in the United States are not, in fact, African American. In general (very general) they’re white.This is a defining factor in what types of shows are produced. Just like writers, producers generally produce what they ‘know’. I am not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Hollywood is predominately white. But have no fear, because this is changing. Diversity is spreading through all branches of the entertainment world, and more African Americans are reaching into areas of production. As this happens, we will see more quality shows geared towards more diverse audiences. I have found VERY FEW shows on UPN to be quality. (Admittedly, very few shows on any Network are, anymore). Barring Network execs who are too eager to wield the axe, a show that is quality will persist and carve a niche. So once diverse shows are being produced with high standards of quality, you will see a shift. That’s what actually matters.

  • Encore merci. En tout cas, je vais revenir vous rendre visite très prochainement. bonne continuation.

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