“City Of Angels” Remembering CBS’ First And Last Black Drama
Tomorrow marks the 16th anniversary of the very last time CBS had a show with a predominately Black cast in its lineup.
The series was called City of Angels and it was the network television’s first predominantly Black medical drama.
The show, which premiered in 2000, centered around the lives of doctors and nurses at the fictitious Angels of Mercy community hospital in Los Angeles. Basically it was like E.R., but with Black and Hispanic people. And it starred Blair Underwood, Gabrielle Union, Hill Harper, and just about every Black actor who was not named Denzel or Halle at the time.
What made the show even more interesting was that it was a grand experiment by CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves and executive producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser and NYPD Blue) to test the public’s appetite for shows starring Black actors.
In other words, would White people support a show which did not center around them?
And reported by the LA Times back in 1999,
“In an unprecedented move, on Wednesday night Moonves, Bochco and the other executives began making their case for “City of Angels.” The group of mostly black entertainment professionals attending an invitation-only forum about the show at the Directors Guild of America was largely supportive of CBS’ efforts. The forum, sponsored by the guild’s African-American Steering Committee, represented a first glimpse into the making of the drama, which has already come under intense scrutiny because of its subject matter and groundbreaking agenda.
Acknowledging the high stakes already surrounding “City of Angels” and the impact the series could have on future drama series featuring minority casts, the panelists outlined their commitment to pull out all the stops in producing and marketing a high-quality drama that would appeal to all viewers. At the same time they underscored their intent to provide a show with minorities in a high-pressure professional atmosphere, which has been traditionally avoided by network executives, who have repeatedly concluded that there is no interest in a serious black drama.”
CBS would go on to invest heavily in the promotion and marketing of the show. But by the end of the first season, the series would struggle greatly in the ratings. And there would be other struggles too. Like the creative riff between Bochco and Angels co-producer Paris Barclay (who is Black and the current president of the Directors Guild of America).
According to another LA Times article from 2000:
“There was no single issue at the center of the disagreement. On the one hand, the men disagreed over what role race should play in a drama about African Americans. Barclay, who is African American, felt “City of Angels” was too black. Bochco, who is white, felt that a black-themed drama should be just that.”
Barclay would eventually bow out of the series. And there was strong consideration of canceling it all together. But after a letter campaign sparked by Black viewers, Moonves decided to give the series one more season.
Unfortunately, a new creative direction, cast changes and the support of the Black community was not enough to bring in the ratings the show so desperately needed. And eventually the series was canceled in December of 2000 only after two seasons.
In spite of what appeared to be an instance of good intentions-gone bad, some media watchdog groups including the National Council of La Raza argued that the show was purposely set-up to fail. As noted in this Entertainment Weekly article from December 14th 2000, City of Angels not only had the misfortune of being pitted against ABC’s rating juggernaut Who Wants to Be A Millionaire but it also shared the same time slot with NBC’s wildly-popular Must See TV lineup.
At the time Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for La Raza, would tell EW that prior to the cancellation, City of Angels made up 40 percent of CBS’ lineup’s 41 minority hires. And now that the show had failed, she worried what it all meant for the future of minority dramas. More specifically she said: ”It seems like we get one shot,” she says. ”The networks think ‘Angels’ didn’t work, so why should another drama about African Americans, not to mention Latinos or Asians.”
It’s hard to say for certain if the failure of City of Angels experiment is why CBS hasn’t taken a chance on a predominately Black series since. But, as noted by the Awl in 2014, although CBS employs actors of color on many of its shows, about 83 percent of CBS’ scripted primetime programming is White.
So it is a serious possibility.