This was written in November 2009 for a Creative Writing class when the assignment was to create a magazine of content you were interested in. I choose to create a TV magazine. This was one of the featured articles.
Where Did All The Color Go?!
By Jordan Walker
When the average person is watching television, you often times see many different things, doctors, lawyers, rich teenagers, and friends juts hanging around. Although, there is something that has been missing from TV for a long time now, a wide variety of diversity among minorities. Being the year 2009, the year that we have America’s first African American president, you would really think there would be more people of color on TV, and not just African American’s, but all races. Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, people of any color. These people aren’t missing from TV in large amounts, you often times see people of color as the funny best friend, or the co-worker, or a person the main character, which is usually white, interacts with during their daily life. Fortunately, these actors of minority are getting acting jobs on TV, but the unfortunate thing is that they aren’t getting any starring roles anymore.
Throughout history, black actors have always fared better with starring roles on TV, ranging all the way back to the 1950’s with stereotypical “Amos ‘n Andy Show”. The key word here is stereotypical. If you really evaluate the roles of African Americans on TV throughout history, the majority of African American led shows are of the comedy genre. This is not on purpose however. Alvin Poussiant M.D. did a study on why TV has been segregated for so many years. Dr. Poussiant points out that TV executives create black sitcoms because they “foster the image of segregation”. Even though the TV executive might not be doing this intentionally, they are reinforcing stereotypes that were established during slavery. During slavery, the slaves were viewed by the slave masters as “buffoons” and childlike and irresponsible. (Poussaint M.D. 1-3)
The ideology is that African American comedians are drawing back to their slave roots is the ways that some act on sitcoms, and TV executives are encouraging this act, even though it is a subliminal and unintentional act on both the TV executives, and the actors’ part. Dr. Poussaint highlights a perfect example of this in his study. Over the years, the majority on African American starring projects on TV has been comedies; however, there haven’t been that many African American based dramas. TV executives have tried to launch them, but they never found an audience. In America, the greater parts of the American TV viewing audience are white people. White people often are more comfortable, and more likely to make a success out of a black sitcom (that’s on a major network like ABC, CBS or NBC). This is because, but not limited to the reason that it is easier to watch a comedy that might have to do with an African American family (Poussaint M.D. 1-3). African American dramas usually don’t work because the studies have shown that white audiences wouldn’t be comfortable seeing the dramatic sides of American Americans lives’ because they might depict too serious of a dimension of the black experience.
After the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984, there was a sudden rise of black sitcoms in the late 80’s and early 90’s with hits like “A Different World”, “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. With these shows and a lot more being hits with not just black audiences but with white audiences too, they were still on considerably “white networks”. Well, with the rise of a new network in the late 1980’s. FOX went in a total different direction. They studied the other networks and saw that a major audience was being left out, African Americans. In 1990, FOX introduced America to a new kind of sketch comedy, “In Living Color”, which was a crossover success being that it was a prominently black show, but also had white comedians on it as supporting characters playing various characters. FOX executives saw the success for that and started to develop more African American geared sitcoms that resonated with an audience that wasn’t being served anywhere else. Comedies like “Living Single”, “Martin”, “Roc”, and even trying to develop an African American and Latino cop drama “New York Undercover” all were hits for the network in the early 1990’s because young black Americans were seeing themselves being portrayed on TV truly for the first time. For FOX viewers, it wasn’t the same as watching shows like “The Cosby Show” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, they were watching young, urban, and most importantly successful black people living, working, and having fun on TV.
With FOX was succeeding in grabbing the black audiences’, in 1995, two new networks were being created and for some time would follow the same formula FOX did just five years before. Both the WB and UPN networks debuted in January 1995 and both networks early on started airing African American sitcoms, although the networks themselves weren’t marketing themselves as “black networks”.
The saying is “nothing last forever”, and nothing ever does. While FOX and The WB all aired black sitcoms well into the 2000’s, the focus began to change hugely from what the networks originally aired. Once 2000 came and “American Idol” premiered, FOX went into full reality overhaul. While still doing traditional comedies and dramas, more and more of them weren’t starring black actors. During the last decade, the lone successful African American comedy was “The Bernie Mac Show” and “My Wife and Kids”, both being comedies that grabbed both black and white audiences. The WB lost interest in its minority audience altogether. Which most of their programs focusing on young teenager audiences, we would just see few black people on the network altogether. UPN was the only network that aired a just about all African American programming schedule up to its demise in 2006. When The WB and UPN merged into the CW in 2006-2007, the executives were only going to take the best of the best from both networks. The CW took the majority of The WB’s more mainstream “white” shows, and only four of UPN’s programs, “American’s Next Top Model”, “Girlfriends”, “The Game”, and “Everybody Hates Chris”. Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAAC’s Hollywood office, commented on the lack of creativity of the broadcast networks toward African American characters, stating that “Where are the Brandon Tartikoffs and Warren Littlefields (former NBC entertainment executives) who are looking for the next “Cosby Show” or for people of color that will appeal to all Americans?” (Braxton The Los Angeles Times G2)
Thanks in large part to UPN, FOX and The WB, many African American actors and other people behind the scenes were able to maintain jobs that might not have been available if it weren’t for those network executives who wanted to take a chance. But there are a lot more minorities out there that are portrayed correctly or at all on TV nowadays, or throughout history for that matter. Latino’s and Asian’s have rarely been presented on TV, and if so, these races would be shown in a negative, stereotypical way.
While it is great to see this different kind of characters on TV, they are often time only used in supporting roles, and rarely seen as the top-billed star on the screen. Throughout television’s history, there have been very few Latino based shows, and if they were, they were short lived, just lasting one season. Only two Latino driven shows can be constituted a success this decade, “George Lopez” and “Ugly Betty”, both an ABC. It’s been even tougher for Asian American’s on American TV to get a starring role. The last known Asian-American show of any type was a six hour miniseries on ABC Family, “Samurai Girl”, which was only on the air for three days.
As CBS entertainment President Nina Tassler was asked by a reporter at the 2009 press tour of “Why isn’t there any diversity on many of your comedies? They all revolve around affluent white people.” The shows the reporter was talking about includes “Gary Unmarried”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “Two and a Half Men”, and How I Met Your Mother”, Ms. Tassler replied: “They’re not all affluent”(Braxton The Los Angeles Times G2). It is very much a shame after African Americans have come so far, in just a short amount of decade; it takes a group of leaders who are focused on the rights of African Americans to just short of demand TV executives to put a variety of Americans on TV. But when the executives are put on the spot by people, they avoid the issue. The way the TV landscape is looking now, it looks like we will have to wait for around into the next decade for TV executives that would be willing to take a chance on making a successful multi-cultured show.
Poussaint, M.D., Alvin. “Why is TV So Segragated?” Family Education. Pearson Education. 2007. 1-3.
Braxton, Greg. “Emmy Telecast Was Lacking Diversity.” The Los Angeles Times. 22 September