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NBC cancels Undercovers: Will network TV's diversity experiment end here?



undercovers.jpgIt was a second shoe dropping that TV experts predicted a while ago.

Hobbled by shrinking ratings and viewer indifference, NBC's Undercovers got the big hook from the network, which declined to make more than the original 13 episodes originally ordered for fall -- effectively canceling the show.

Undercovers got a lot of early attention as the first pilot pickup announced by NBC. Didn't hurt that Lost/Star Trek mastermind J.J. Abrams had co-created the show, agreeing to co-write and direct the pilot. And the network got to make a strong statement about diversity just as some lawmakers were aiming criticisms at Comcast's deal to buy a controlling stake in NBC Universal, casting two black actors in lead roles of a pivotal show.

Outlaw_NBC.jpgBut now that the series has become yet another expensive failure for the fourth-place network -- along with Jimmy Smits' starring vehicle Outlaw -- will the TV industry conclude that actors of color can't carry big-ticket scripted series alone?

Here's why I'm hoping they won't: Undercovers had a lot of strikes against it that had nothing to do with the race of its lead actors.

It was an expansive action show shot on a budget; it was a new show leading off a competitive night airing against reality TV juggernaut Survivor; the scripts never jelled, leading to questions about how involved executive producernikitaposter2.jpg Abrams really was; the show got so much attention early in the year, by the time it aired, many people were already sick of it (most of those arguments also hold true for Smits' Outlaw, especially the part about weak scripts).

It's encouraging that many other experts who talk about the show mention similar criticisms, though some have also faulted the leads for not being compelling enough. Since it's tough to know why viewers might find a particular actor compelling, who knows how that argument will play out in the future.

What we do know now: the CW's successful Nikita is the only new show left with a person of color in the lead who isn't part of an ensemble cast. And TV loves to copy success while avoiding the image of past failure.

Whether that keeps people of color from lead roles in the future, is mostly up to the guys who run the television industry.

[Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 9:32am]


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