Sunday, August 01, 1999

Lack of diversity a sin of omission




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — Paris Barclay wanted to set the record straight. Mr. Barclay, an African-American who has directed ER and produced NYPD Blue, said the lack of racial diversity in the new fall season isn't from a lack of minority actors.

        “It's laziness. It's negligence,” he said.

        Is it racism?

        “I know most of the people in these seats of power at the network. I really don't think they're racist people. I just don't think it (racial diversity) occurred to them,” he said during the TV critics' summer press tour.

        Mr. Barclay, an Emmy-winning director and the first African-American officer of the Directors Guild of America, spoke eloquently to TV critics at the summer press tour about the networks' exclusion of minorities in new fall shows.

        He knows about racism from growing up in Chicago, going to high school in Indiana, and working on the ABC drama in which each script brushes up against Detective Andy Sipowicz's dislike of “those people,” as Sipowicz calls African-Americans.

        Earlier this year, during a visit to NYPD Blue, Mr. Barclay had told me that Sipowicz was “a racist in general,” the worst kind.

        “He can be upset about "these people' of a certain ethnic heritage, but when he meets . . . a black undercover cop, he can be totally cool with him and completely sensitive to his situation, and doesn't see him as a black person,” Mr. Barclay said.

        I had to know: Was the same true for TV executives?

        He said no, the fall TV problem was a sin of omission, not a sin of commission.

        “Most of the people who develop and oversee network television are white males who live in Malibu, Brentwood or Bel Air. They don't know a lot of black people, and they're not interested in really writing those kinds of characters. They never grew up with them. They're not familiar with them.”

        Programming executives at the four major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — are nearly all Caucasians, mostly white males, he said.

        “I've never seen an African-American person in that high of a position,” he said.

        So new fall comedies and dramas this year will reflect the makeup of the networks' programmers, not the nation's population.

        It's a radical departure from previous seasons, which brought ethnically diverse shows such as ER, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Practice, Becker and 413 Hope St., or minority comedies such as Cosby, Moesha, The Hughleys or The Gregory Hines Show.

        Passionately and persuasively, Mr. Barclay responded to many theories and excuses heard by TV critics about the 26 new fall shows without minorities:

        • Not enough black actors: “It's a wealth of talent,” he countered. While casting City of Angels, his new midseason black medical drama for CBS, he had “five to 10 choices for any role we wanted.” City of Angels stars Blair Underwood, Vivica A. Fox and Michael Warren.

        “Everybody we've asked to do the show has said yes. Part of the reason is that there isn't any work,” said Mr. Barclay, who also has directed music videos for L.L. Cool J., Janet Jackson, Bob Dylan and Harry Connick Jr.

        • Whites won't watch shows with black lead characters: “The Cosby Show showed us that if you write a show that is universal in its themes — there was a man and his wife dealing with raising their kids that everyone could relate to — people will come.

        “ER, Homicide, NYPD Blue work with all different kinds of races (on the show).”

        • Whites won't watch black romances: “One of the most romantic relationships in television was between Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad.

        “When they decided to cast a major black doctor on St. Elsewhere, they got Denzel Washington. And when they needed a love interest for him, they got Alfre Woodard.”

        • Blacks aren't invited to read for most parts that don't specify race: “Colorblind casting can only work if the people who are actually making the choices are truly open to just ability, and not color. It only works if Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue) is sitting in the room, or other people like Tom Fontana (Homicide), who look at the best actor regardless of color.”

        • Not enough black producers or off-camera personnel: “So the solution is, as Steven (Bochco) is doing, you have to mentor people, as he has mentored me, as he's mentoring some of the writers . . . On L.A. Law, Steven went through a series of people, including David E. Kelley.”

        • Adding a black character to all-white shows will fix the problem: “It really won't help this season, except that there will be some employment for some African-Americans. But once they get into pilot development for next season, I think there will be much greater consciousness among the network people.

        “It's going to help that a lot of these (all-white) shows are going to fail. They're not going to get the audience expected, and then maybe people will say, "Hmmm, maybe we should have done something that was a little more like America.'”

African-Americans talk about TV flap

        Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the TV critics summer press tour this month.