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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Black Sitcoms May Lose Home: UPN-WB Merger Puts Shows In Jeopardy by Suzanne C. Ryan

On Thursday, the new broadcast television network known as the CW will unveil its first fall lineup.

The news will be huge for UPN and WB fans because several programs on those networks are not expected to survive after the networks merge to create the CW.

But for viewers like Dorchester resident Louis Eaton, something bigger than just a TV show is at stake.

UPN is the home of eight sitcoms with predominantly African-American casts, more than any network on television. Overnight, the CW may potentially wipe out that window into the black community, which would be a blow to African-Americans like Eaton, a 52-year-old who watches "Girlfriends" and "Half & Half."

"I just don't see the black experience reflected much on any other networks," he said.

Although CW officials aren't talking yet about their 2006-07 schedule, it has been widely predicted that Chris Rock's sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris" and the Tyra Banks reality show "America's Next Top Model" will survive, along with "Veronica Mars," "Smallville," "Beauty and the Geek," "Gilmore Girls," and WWE's "Smackdown."

Seven African-American-focused programs on UPN may be destined for the history books: "One on One," "All of Us," "Cuts," "Eve," Half & Half," "Love, Inc.," and "Girlfriends."

'A travesty'

Jannette Dates, dean of the School of Communications at Howard University, called the potential cancellations a "travesty" because the black middle class already isn't represented much on television, she said.

"Sure, some of those shows were silly sitcom fare, but at least they tried to dive into issues that other shows never touched. 'All of Us' just had a 1/8-black male character confronted with the fact that his son wanted to use the 'n' word. They explored why that was such a moment of tension for everybody."

J. Anthony Brown is a Los Angeles-based comedian who has appeared in a number of sitcoms featuring all-black casts in recent years, including "Like Family," "Martin," "The Hughleys," and "The Parkers." All of them have been canceled. He called the future "bleak" for black actors striving to make it on sitcoms.

"Many of these UPN shows have all black actors, black writers, black producers, black camera people. If those shows are canceled, where are those people going to go?" he said.

On TV, ratings -- not race -- are the bottom line, and the reality is that both UPN and the WB, which launched one week apart in 1995, have struggled to create hits.

Last fall, UPN heavily marketed "Everybody Hates Chris," but the show has averaged about 4.3 million viewers this season. Those are good numbers by UPN standards but not enough to save the network. Likewise, the WB -- which was once a hot spot for teens who watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek" -- has averaged 4.7 million viewers for "Smallville" and 4.6 million viewers for "Gilmore Girls."

CBS Corp., which owns UPN, announced in January that it was joining forces with Warner Bros. Entertainment, which owns the WB, to create the CW. By combining their most popular shows on the same channel and launching new series, they hope to create a stronger network.

Black shows have struggled

If the CW does walk away from African-American-themed programming, it won't be the first network to do so. Both Fox and the WB also embraced those types of shows in the '90s when they were young networks (Fox had "Martin" and "In Living Color," the WB had "The Parent 'Hood" and "Sister, Sister"). Eventually, they moved on to series with broader appeal.

Beginning in 1996, UPN began filling that niche with shows like "Moesha" and later "Malcolm & Eddie." The network's current lineup includes "Girlfriends," a show about the lives of four professional African-American women; "Eve," which stars the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist as a fashion designer whose love life needs work; and "All of Us," which is inspired by the life of actor Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

BET, the cable network dedicated to African-Americans, is a logical place to expect development going forward. Reginald Hudlin, the newly installed head of programming at BET, said he will be "ecstatic" if UPN abandons its sitcoms.

"If I was still a producer, I would be frustrated," he said. "Now that I'm a programmer, I say thank you. I will gladly take that audience. They will free up millions of eyeballs to watch BET."

BET, however, has no plans to produce traditional sitcoms in the immediate future. Instead, the network is producing celebrity-based reality shows, talk shows, and some animated programming.

Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said at least one show -- "Everybody Hates Chris" -- may benefit from being recast on a higher-profile network.

"I think the CW will bring it a much larger audience," he said. "If it became a real hit, who knows? It could inspire more shows. Before that happens, though, we're faced with the annihilation of an entire programming type.

"They may not have been the greatest shows ever made," he added. "But at least they covered different territory than all those interchangeable sitcoms on the big networks."

For Eaton, Monday nights won't be the same without his beloved "Girlfriends" and "Half & Half."

"I probably won't watch TV," he said.

This article appears in The Boston Globe

Suzanne C. Ryan

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

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