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Associated Press Newswires
Diversity Becomes Reality On Fall Lineup For Fox
By Mark Dawidziak; Plain Dealer Television Critic
July 25, 2003
Hollywood -- Cedric the Entertainer is blasting Fox for planning to dump his variety show. Asian-American protesters have set up picket lines, angered by what they see as offensive stereotypes in the network's summer series, "Banzai," a parody of Japanese game shows.
This is classic Fox, courting controversy that obscures and almost obliterates the better aspects of its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature.
Why, you must wonder, is Fox blundering into the Cedric and "Banzai" flaps at a time when no other broadcast network is doing more to deliver on the TV industry's promises of diversity?
That's right, "Cedric" and "Banzai" notwithstanding, the bad boys and girls at Fox are the principal prime-time players doing the right thing when it comes to casting black and Hispanic actors. Almost everywhere you look on their ambitious fall schedule, you find new and returning shows with minorities in starring and key ensemble roles.
The seven series Fox will introduce this fall are the commercial television equivalent of a rainbow coalition. Executive Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "Skin," for instance, stars D.J. Cortona as what network press releases describe as a 17-year-old Latino with a Latina mother (Rachel Ticotin) and an Anglo father (Michael Anderson). The son of a judge and district attorney, he falls in love with Jewel (Olivia Wilde), the daughter of a leading producer of adult entertainment (Ron Silver).
Also on the Fox lineup are two comedies with largely Hispanic casts: "Luis," starring Puerto Rico native Luis Guzman, and "The Ortegas," with Al Madrigal as Alejandro, the son of immigrant parents played by Cheech Marin and Terri Hoyos. Certainly inspired by the success of George Lopez's ABC comedy, they join series starring black comedians Bernie Mac and Wanda Sykes.
This is the free-swinging network that routinely gets pilloried for hitting the lowest-common-denominator with everything from "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" to "Joe Millionaire." So, it's only fair to recognize a positive trend emerging at TV's home of the repeat offenders.
Diversity clearly is one of the watchwords at Fox, where black stars are central players as a high school principal on "Boston Public," a judge on "American Idol," a president on "24" and a best friend on "Malcolm in the Middle." But while the network's efforts to hire minorities behind and in front of the cameras is to be applauded, it should be pointed out that this campaign is not entirely altruistic.
It makes excellent business sense, as well. Black and Hispanic viewers together account for about 25 percent of the country's 106.7 million television homes. Fox seems to be the network most intent on embracing and reflecting that reality.
And keep in mind that the other watchword at Fox is momentum. The network has just completed a season of remarkable gains in the ratings, claiming three spots in the top six with "Joe Millionaire" and the two nights of "American Idol." And it has vaulted to No. 2, behind only NBC, among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic most prized by advertisers.
The imperative for Fox executives is to develop some hit dramas and comedies behind those reality juggernauts. They're certainly giving it a good run. "Arrested Development," a comedy starring Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor as members of an eccentric family, is being singled out by many critics as the best new show of the season.
Another rookie series, "The O.C.," will get an early start, making its debut at 9 p.m. Aug. 5 on Fox-owned WJW Channel 8. The drama stars Peter Gallagher an idealistic public defender living in California's Orange County.
"We are in great position for long-term growth," Fox's entertainment president Gail Berman told TV critics assembled for their semi-annual meetings with network and cable executives, producers and stars. "We are creating good shows and we are making the ones we have even better."
Still, it's not all good news at Fox. Without its reality shows, Fox would have no shows in the Top 40. And there are those stinging Cedric criticisms.
Fox will air six new episodes of "Cedric the Entertainer Presents," the highest-rated TV series among African-American viewers, this fall. But the show has already been canceled. The comedian claims that the network was demanding changes he refused to make, including the addition of more big-name white guest stars.
It has set up a difficult dilemma for Fox and the other networks. They are making prime-time casts more multicultural, but black executive producers say this push actually is working against their shows, forcing them to add white performers to all-black casts.
But while this argument rages across the entire TV landscape, Fox at least has taken multiculturalism to heart, texturing it into shows with white leads, like "24."
Fox, though, is still Fox, the Jekyll-and-Hyde network ever swerving from class to crass. This was the pattern throughout the '90s, and it's holding true into a new century.
It should be known as the network of "24," "Bernie Mac" and "The Simpsons" - consistently innovative and intelligently crafted shows. To many, however, it is the network of "Temptation Island," "Joe Millionaire," "Banzai" and "Celebrity Boxing."
Fox executives realize, too, that there have been times when they haven't been rewarded for programming quality. Two years ago, they fielded a Fox lineup called the best and the brightest by critics. Nothing soared the way "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire" took off last season.
And such acclaimed recent series as "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "Keen Eddie" failed to click with viewers. Richter's show has been canceled, and the future of "Keen Eddie" looks doubtful.
This is where the split personality deepens at Fox. The network's executives try to go the Dr. Jekyll route, but viewers reward them more handsomely for playing the part of Mr. Hyde. That's when the temptation to bring back a "Temptation Island" becomes overwhelming.