Cable's minority lineup one-ups the networks

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School's not in for at least another month, but some early report cards are already available.

The broadcast television networks, under fire for the better part of this past year for not providing enough racial diversity both behind and in front of the camera, are going to the back of the class.

In the front-row seats, with better-than-passing grades, sit the cable networks, providing a blueprint for their larger cousins on how to embrace a more culturally diverse view of the world.

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Fittingly, given this child-oriented metaphor, a children's channel occupies the center seat. Nickelodeon, a basic cable channel for children, is offering not one or even two, but three ethnically themed shows, in this case Latino, for its new season ("The Brothers Garcia," "Taina," and "Dora, the Explorer"). "Brothers Garcia" debuts July 23.

Albie Hecht, the president of Nickelodeon's film and television division, describes how this came to pass. The decision was made, he says, during a recent chat with Jeff Valdez, executive producer of "The Brothers Garcia."

Never one to waste an opportunity, the Hispanic scribe told Mr. Hecht that Nickelodeon didn't have enough brown faces on it.

"We felt he was right," says Hecht, who proceeded to commission the new shows, chock-full of multigenerational, multicultural faces set in various parts of the country

At the same time, the premium-cable channel Showtime is rolling out the first Latin-themed dramatic series on TV, "Resurrection Boulevard," as well as "Soul Food," which depicts an African-American family, after the film of the same title.

Lifetime, following its mandate to serve women, is offering "City Lights" (a working title), a female police drama, and "Strong Medicine," about an inner-city clinic staffed by women. Romance Classics is airing an inspirational biography series, "Cool Women," as well as "A Girl Thing," a four-hour series about a diverse group of women treated by a single New York therapist.

This growth in diversity demonstrates the ability of the cable industry, with its niche markets, to respond more immediately to the new demands of the large and culturally diverse viewing audience in the United States.

"Nickelodeon's mandate is to be for all kids, regardless of what their background is, their culture is, and their race is," Hecht says. "We wanted to make sure that we were reflecting kids' lives...."

"Cable is doing quite well," agrees Anne-Marie Johnson, an actress and Screen Actors Guild activist. "I'm very encouraged by what is happening on cable." It's ironic, she adds, that the networks, with the original mandate to broadcast to the widest range of viewers, are responding much more slowly. Her analysis of the reason is simple.

"We still live in a racist society," Ms. Johnson says. "Yes, it is the year 2000, but not only are we fighting it within the artists' unions, but it's being fought across the country."

Activists, and the NAACP in particular, have pursued the issue with the four biggest networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox) over the course of the past year. Each network signed a pact vowing to encourage greater diversity both in front of and behind the camera. There are small signs of progress, industry insiders say.

ABC has a hospital drama, "Gideon's Crossing," with a large, multicultural cast, led by former "Homicide: Life on the Streets" detective Andre Braugher. But this is also the year that CBS turned down the chance to pick up "American Family," a Latin-themed drama with an all-star cast, without explanation.

Cable is showing the way, agrees researcher Darnell Hunt at the University of Southern California, author of a recent report on African-Americans in the entertainment industry. But it is important that the networks, who command more than 50 percent of viewers, get with the program.

"TV, despite these new technologies, is still our major cultural forum in this country," author Hunt says. "And in many respects, it tells us kind of who we are, who we aren't, who we want to be. If America is a diverse place, why should one group be completely segregated from the rest of the population?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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