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ARE UPN, WB BECOMING `GHETTOIZED?’

SHARE ARE UPN, WB BECOMING `GHETTOIZED?’

Of the eight new sitcoms debuting on mini-networks UPN and the WB this fall, six of them feature predominantly black casts. Altogether, the two network-wannabes have 11 such shows.

By means of comparison, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have a total of four shows with predominantly black casts. Combined.The trend has become so pronounced that many in the business are referring to the "ghettoizing" of UPN and the WB.

"Obviously, it's a program strategy they are going for," said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. "They're going for very young, very urban (viewers)."

But the term "ghettoizing" is one that makes UPN President Lucie Salhany bristle.

"Comedy is comedy, and people want to laugh," Salhany said. "And I'm very, very concerned about the term `ghettoizing.' "

At the WB, they'll readily agree with the term when it comes to UPN, but not with themselves.

"I actually find it personally a little difficult to lump us with UPN when it comes to the way we develop programs with ethnic casts, because we really try to develop programs that have crossover appeal to the whole audience," said Garth Ancier, the WB's head of programming. "In the case of UPN . . . if you program five new programs and they're all ethnic comedies, that's a conscious decision."

And Ancier's boss, Jamie Kellner, jumped in an pointed out that the WB's schedule is about one-third ethnic and two-thirds non-ethnic right now.

But do the math. The WB has 2.5 hours of black shows - 36 percent of its total. Three hours of UPN are devoted to comedies with black casts - half their total six hours.

By means of comparison, ABC ("Family Matters") and CBS ("Cosby") have only one-half hour in their 22-hour prime-time schedules - a measly 2 percent. Fox has two shows ("Living Single" and "Martin"), one hour out of 13 - 7.6 percent.

And NBC, the runaway leader in the ratings, has no shows with a predominantly black cast. They have black cast members in various shows but in supporting roles.

And a defensive Salhany wondered why no one had questioned NBC on its schedule.

Actually, NBC was questioned about it. And Littlefield's rather lame answer was that if Will Smith had wanted to do another year of "Fresh Prince," that show would be on NBC's fall schedule.

"The goal as we go forward is to get more minorities on some of our "must-see' shows," he said.

There's nothing sinister, surprising or inherently wrong with the ethnic strategy at either UPN or the WB. They're moving into a crowded field in network TV, and they're appealing to an audience that isn't being well served.

And, as evidenced by the schedules of the four established networks, black viewers aren't being particularly well-served.

So so-called ethnic shows are a way to attract an audience and build something of an advertising base - the ultimate goal of all TV programmers.

What is less understandable, however, is the quality of the ethnic comedies that UPN and the WB are putting on the air. And, overwhelmingly, that quality is atrociously bad.

And a big part of what makes shows like "Homeboys in Outer Space", "The Jamie Foxx Show," "Malcolm and Eddie," "Sparks" and "The Wayans Bros." so bad are the offensive racial stereotypes they portray.

Several of these shows have the same scene played slightly differently - a young black male, full of jive talk and hip-hop attitude, sees a gorgeous young woman in a tight dress. The young black male goes bananas, his sense of reason completely overcome by his hormones.

It's insulting to the intelligence of all viewers. And particularly insulting to black Americans.

Shows like those mention above - and including Fox's "Martin" - are grotesquely close to being updated versions of "Amos 'n' Andy."

About the best thing that can be said about the characters on these shows is that they're not drug dealers or gang members. They're certainly not role models.

And while creating role models is not necessarily the job of television comedies, with the exception of "Cosby," network television does not have much in the way of ethnic comedies that could be considered witty and intelligent instead of loud, tasteless buffoonery.

Television viewers - and television executives - should be much more concerned about the quality of their ethnic comedies than the numbers.