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For many of the black writers who tell the stories and craft the images we see on television, judgment day awaits. The recent news that The WB and UPN will cease operations and form a new network leaves many African Americans working behind the scenes concerned about the status of their current jobs and the certainty of their futures.
A number of shows are potentially on the chopping block, as executives decide what programming will be picked up by The CW, the new network scheduled to replace its predecessors in September.
For African American writers, the demise of UPN is particularly troublesome. UPN led the major networks in percentage of minority positions for 2004-2005 with 32%, well ahead of the next closest network, ABC, with 18%.
During the 2004-2005 season, five of the top 10 shows employing minority writers were UPN sitcoms. These series included One on One (employing 71%), Eve (69%), Cuts (63%), and Girlfriends (56%). In contrast, CSI, the No.1 scripted series in the Nielsen ratings for the last three years, employed 15%.
David Wyatt, who has written for Cosby, Martin, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, says UPN played a major role in helping black writers get their foot in the door. According to Wyatt, the network’s schedule reflects a proven strategy-building a roster of shows to draw the large African American market and later dumping them for mainstream shows, which are considered more lucrative to advertisers.
“The WB used this model and Fox before them. After much criticism, the four major networks made efforts to hire unemployed blacks with the use of diversity programs,” Wyatt says. But most of these jobs were entry level, “leaving many seasoned writers out of work,” Wyatt adds.
The CW will be geared toward adults 18 to 34, particularly young women. The programming lineup will be announced in May during the network’s upfront, a showcase where executives unveil the fall television schedules to potential advertisers. Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. (which, along with Warner Bros. Entertainment, owns the network), said in a statement that it “will serve the public with high-quality programming and maintain our ongoing commitment to our diverse audience.”