D.L. Hughley is trying hard to be diplomatic.
Sure, he's starring in one of the few new TV shows to find any success last year, The Hughleys. And despite little promotion or critical support, his black-centered, suburban sitcom held viewers from the preceding show, Home Improvement, and held off competition from Fox-TV's The PJs.
So what did ABC do for this fall? They moved the show to Fridays _ some jokingly call it Black Friday _ where Hughley will compete against the WB's The Steve Harvey Show and Bill Cosby in CBS' Kids Say the Darndest Things on one of the least-watched nights of the week.
"When people get out of the idea that there is only one way to be black then a lot of this will blow over," said the comic. "I was angry when I first heard about the schedule change. But there are people that Cosby reaches that we don't. I'm hoping all three of us survive and do well."
Hughley appeared here Wednesday before TV writers during the Television Critics Association's summertime press tour. He said ABC last week asked him to stop by, just as media pressure was heating up over the TV networks' lack of racial diversity ("I'd like to think I was coming anyway," the comedian noted, dryly).
He tried to be the good corporate trouper, but Hughley _ in a small room far from the other press conferences _ pointed out a basic truth.
Even when ABC has a good show, it often doesn't know what to do with it.
During the network's presentations Tuesday and Wednesday, it pushed clunkers such as Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson's coming-of-age drama Wasteland and Ally McBeal mastermind David E. Kelley's ill-conceived, high-tech private eye series, Snoops. Left for the end of Wednesday was a press conference on one of the fall season's finest shows _ Once and Again.
Starring Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) and former Sisters co-star Sela Ward, the show focuses on two divorced parents who begin a romance, bucking the trend of teen shows.
"I (auditioned) for a James Bond film at age 37 and the comment from the director afterward was, "What we really want is Sela 10 years ago,'
" said Ward, whose 43rd birthday is days away.
"It's a wasteland out there for roles for (older women)," she added. "Unwittingly, this show celebrates age that at 40, there is life."
So what does ABC do with this gem? They schedule it for NYPD Blue's 10 p.m. Tuesday time slot for six weeks, until Oct. 26, with plans to move it to Mondays, once Monday Night Football ends.
NYPD Blue fans will likely resent seeing a relationship drama take their beloved show's place.
Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, said critics just don't understand.
"Frankly, we're doing something nobody's done before," she said. "We're not going to fritter away an asset like this."
You could fill a boutique cable channel with the fine dramas ABC has frittered away already, including Nothing Sacred, Cupid and Relativity.
Besides its new shows, ABC has scheduled face lifts for established programs such as Norm, Saturday Night Live veteran Norm MacDonald's limp comedy, which gets supervixen Nikki Cox from the WB's canceled Unhappily Ever After.
The Drew Carey Show plans a live, partially unscripted episode in November that will be performed three times for each of the country's time zones, while Melrose Place veteran Heather Locklear joins Michael J. Fox's Spin City.
"I was literally the only person from the (Melrose Place) cast who didn't have something on their plate when the show ended," said Locklear, who will play a manipulative campaign manager. "Now I'm moving from one popular show to one that's even more popular. How cool is that?"
And Jeffrey D. Sams joins the list of minority actors added late to all-white TV casts this season, jumping in with the gang on Wasteland.
"I was cast before all this craziness _ a great craziness _ and yes, we are encouraging the programming to change," says Sams, whose resume includes roles on Living Single, Cupid and Law & Order. "We've gone far, and we'll keep going."
With Tarses and two other executives now in charge of ABC programming, one can't help wondering whether their confusion _ and the viewers' _ won't continue well into the next millennium.