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Tough climb for 'Hill'

Acclaimed African-American dramatries to reverse ratings for its survival

When UPN unveiled the Taye Diggs drama ''Kevin Hill" last September, television critics fell in love.

Diggs is ''perfect," purred USA Today.

The program is a ''profoundly pleasing hour," The New York Times chimed in.

As the only drama on broadcast television with an African-American lead actor, ''Kevin Hill" was supposed to have brought in new viewers to the network, known for the reality show ''America's Next Top Model," and for the fading ''Star Trek" spinoff ''Enterprise."

But now, after 19 episodes,''Kevin Hill" -- which chronicles the story of a successful lawyer who gives up a fabulous bachelor lifestyle to adopt his orphaned cousin, an infant girl -- seems to be falling flat.

Now, as ratings slide while it approaches a May 18 finale, ''Kevin Hill" stands a chance of being canceled next season. Fighting to avoid a bitter end, producers are bringing in a host of guest stars to boost ratings for the May sweeps. They include singer Toni Braxton; last season's ''America's Next Top Model" winner, Eva Pigford; and Diggs's wife, Idina Menzel.

If the show doesn't survive, it will join the ranks of short-lived programs like ''City of Angels" and ''Platinum," dramas featuring the lives of people of color that didn't resonate with enough viewers.

''It's so frustrating," says Dennis Leoni, creator and producer of Showtime's Latino drama ''Resurrection Blvd.," which was canceled in 2002 after a three-year run. ''You'd think out of 110 million US households with televisions, you'd be able to scare up more than 2 million viewers."

''Kevin Hill" averages 2.8 million viewers a week. By contrast, ''America's Next Top Model" averages 5.1 million. Even among women 18 to 34 years old, UPN's target demographic, ''Kevin Hill" is averaging 1.9 million viewers.

With all of the show's hype and Diggs's popularity (he became a sex symbol for his role in ''How Stella Got Her Groove Back"), what went wrong?

UPN and the show's executive producers aren't talking because the network is in the midst of deciding its fall lineup.

But theories about the show's possible mistakes abound.

Some critics look to the executive producer, Alex Taub, who oversaw the first 18 episodes of the season before UPN -- in a highly unusual late-season move -- replaced him with ''ER" veteran Samantha Corbin-Miller Her first episode aired last night.

Felicia D. Henderson, the creator of Showtime's ''Soul Food," a drama featuring an all-black cast that aired from 2000 to 2004, says Taub and his team made the Kevin Hill character too perfect.

''He was supposed to be the biggest playboy ever but they made it so easy for him to say 'Now I'm a father,' " Henderson says. ''He should have made a lot more mistakes. Men would have responded to that and women would have said 'No he didn't! Men are such dogs.' "

A UPN official declined to comment on Taub, other than to say that he had been replaced because of ''creative differences."

Some observers question why the program, with its multiethnic cast, seems to avoid race as a topic.

While no one is suggesting that the show be spun around ethnicity, tip-toeing around the issue doesn't seem authentic either, they say.

''Without alienating your nonblack audience, you do want to see signs that this man comes from a certain kind of culture, whether it's just art on the mall, music in the background, or a magazine on the table," says Donald Bogle, author of ''Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television." ''You don't want him to live in a world where race doesn't exist," Bogle says.

Leoni wonders if UPN was wrong to pitch an earnest prime-time drama to a young, hip audience. The young-skewing network isn't known for drama, after all, but for comedies, most of them with African-American casts.

''It's hard to sustain a family drama among any age group, unless you're doing a bubble-gum sweet show like '7th Heaven,' " Leoni says.

And young people are particularly elusive. ''People in their 20s are out clubbing, or they're on the Internet. They don't want to watch family dramas," Leoni says.

''Kevin Hill" isn't the only drama on television led by a black actor. Ving Rhames is starring in ''Kojak," but that police drama, airs on cable's USA Network.

Certainly, the time slot for ''Kevin Hill" doesn't help. While ''America's Top Model," provides a strong lead-in, at 9 p.m. the show is competing against Fox's mammoth ''American Idol," as well as against ABC's ''Alias," among other shows.

Willie Mitchell, an advertising executive for Radio One of Boston, Inc., is a die-hard fan who has been influenced by Hill's trademark colorful shirts.

''They call me Willie Hill on the job," Mitchell says. I've gone to bright yellow shirts and pink ties, stuff I would never have worn before," Mitchell says.

As a single father of a preschooler, Mitchell is also pleased to see a positive image of a black father on TV.

''He's a good role model for black men to step up," says Mitchell, who is African-American. ''When he first got the baby and he was buggin' about trying to change diapers, that took me back."

While Mitchell encourages friends to watch the show, he finds that people without children can't connect. ''When someone tells me they don't like it, the first thing I ask is: 'Do you have any kids?' If they don't, they can't relate," he says.

Other observers refuse to believe that the program's ratings are bad.

Elizabeth Amelia Hadley, a professor of Africana and women's studies at Simmons College, maintains that plenty of African-Americans are watching the drama, but that Nielsen Media Research is unaware.

''Where are the ratings boxes located?" she asks. ''I've never been asked to rate anything and I don't know any other African-Americans who have either. I do know plenty of people who watch 'Kevin Hill.' "

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com


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