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New York Daily News
Sunday, July 18, 1999

Network Whiteout: Primetime Fantasy of Life in NYC

Special to the Sunday News

Only days after Con Edison cables frizzled during the recent New York heat wave, NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume expressed anger over another sort of power shortage: Of 26 new television programs announced by the four major networks, not one features a lead character of color.

That's bad enough, but a quick survey by the Sunday News showed that TV shows set in New York City fared even worse.

"It's a blackout," said Jack White, an African-American columnist for Time magazine. "Television today is a fantasyland. It's televised apartheid — a white fantasy."

"When I was growing up, the shows my family watched were programs such as 'All in the Family,' 'Good Times,' 'The Jeffersons,' 'Diff'rent Strokes' — and this was all well before the multiculturalism movement," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, who teaches broadcast journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"Now I'm still waiting for them to get a black friend on 'Friends.' "

Considering the gorgeous mosaic that comprises New York City, it is peculiar that six generally agreeable, downright friendly folks such as the "Friends" characters don't seem to have befriended any blacks.

But, then, "Friends" is not the only New York-based sitcom to stumble in its portrayal of Gotham's ethnic melting pot. Consider these popular sitcoms, all of which are (or were) set in New York City:

Sure, there are the gritty cop shows, such as ABC's "NYPD Blue" or NBC's "Law & Order," which offer an array of minority characters. There are even semi-high-profile minority characters, such as James McDaniel's Lt. Fancy on "NYPD Blue."

A spokesman for NBC agrees "there is still work to be done" but points to the nonwhite lead characters in its new fall entry "Third Watch," a show about emergency response teams in New York. The drama, produced by John Wells ("ER"), will feature an ensemble cast of nine actors, five of whom are minority-group members.

"I watch 'Seinfeld,' " said Bryan Adams, the African-American co-owner of FAB, a New York-based public relations firm. "I watch all these New York shows. I don't want to single out 'Seinfeld,' because it's such a clever show. But you don't see a lot of black faces on 'Seinfeld' or 'Sex and the City.'

"The bottom line," he said, "is that if the shows are good, that's what is important to me. But it would be nice, at least once in a while, to see someone who looks like me on the other side of the screen."

So why is it so difficult for the networks to paint an accurate picture of New York?

"There's not a diversity of experience among the writers or among the executives," said J.J. Paulsen, co-executive producer of "The Cosby Show," who is white.

"So there's not a diversity of programming. All the shows are based in virtually the same cities and the characters go through virtually the same experiences. Everything in TV is pushed to the middle of the road. Anything that has any quirks or color at all goes to cable. It's sad."

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