Similar to my article about African Americans on TV for my WRT 114 class, but with a lot more information on the industry as a whole from the vantage point of African American workers. Written for an African American Studies course in November 2009
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’s something that has been missing from TV for a long time now, and that is a wide variety of diversity among minorities.
With this being 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 would be portrayed on TV just as equally as anyone else. However, these people aren’t missing from TV totally, you often times see people of color as the funny best friend, or the co-worker, or a person the main character, who 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 executive’s 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 majorities on African American starring projects on TV have 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. (Poussaint M.D. 1-3) 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. African American dramas usually don’t work because the studies have shown that white audiences wouldn’t be comfortable seeing the dramatic sides of African Americans lives’ because they might depict too serious of a dimension of the black experience.
During the 1970’s, the big three networks offered America a slew of successful and socially relevant African American sitcoms like “The Jeffersons”, “Good Times”, and “Sanford and Son”. The reason these and many other African American themed sitcoms thrived because all of these shows were “crossover” hits, meaning they appealed to all audiences, and that is what made them successful. Another big reason these kinds of shows came to air is TV executives took chances on the creators of those shows because they knew the African American audiences’ were out there, and they wanted to see themselves on TV. This trend also continued on into the 1980’s. 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)
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. (“Television and Media Essay – African Americans and TV Shows). “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”.
UPN and The WB were both proving to be very successful catering to the African American audiences’ in American in bringing in a high percentage of African American viewers, and also making large profits from their shows. However, while these two new networks continued to produce new African American shows, other networks began to lose interest in portraying African Americans on their programs. As NBC, who in the 1980’s aired a multitude of successful African American sitcoms, started producing all white sitcoms that became huge successes like “Frasier”, “Seinfeld”, “Friends”, and “Will and Grace” in the mid-to late 1990’s, other ABC and CBS followed suit in trying to replicate the successful sitcoms from NBC. The problems with NBC’s sitcoms were they were increasing featuring less and less African American characters. That is until the NAACP took notice of what was happening on the broadcast networks and took action.
When the NAACP released “Out of Focus – Out of Sync”, they were trying to get the networks’ attention on the lack of diversity that was on television, and trying to get the networks to once again, broaden their horizons on what kind of characters that are on TV. This report that the NAACP created, got TV executives’, as well as the rest of the media recognizing that there was a serious problems. As the NAACP started to release these reports, the TV executives started to rethink their “whiteout” TV strategies, and started to create more roles on camera, and jobs behind the camera as well, for African Americans, and more African American targeted shows; and this just didn’t happen on The WB, UPN and FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC also upped the percentage on African Americans on their programs. (“Out of Focus – Out of Sync” 19-38) Thanks to “Out of Focus – Out of Sync, NBC created two new African American led sitcoms for the 2003-2004 TV season, “The Tracy Morgan Show” and “Whoopi”; both only lasted one season. While NBC failed at their African American sitcoms, other networks did seem to find hits like FOX’s “The Bernie Mac Show” and ABC’s “My Wife and Kids”.
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. The 2000-2001 season brought the debut of “American Idol”, 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 only two successful African American comedies on network TV were the aforementioned “The Bernie Mac Show” and “My Wife and Kids”, and both of those success stories can be thanked upon due to the shows’ crossover appeal – in which they attract both black and white audiences; and the drama “Boston Public”, which have a multi-racial cast. The WB abandoned their African American audience by 2004 by offering as little just two African American themed sitcoms “Like Family” and “All about the Andersons”, from a high of seven in the 1998-1999 season.
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 just chose UPN’s “American’s Next Top Model”, “Girlfriends”, “The Game”, and “Everybody Hates Chris”. While FOX, UPN and The WB did start off as a kind of an alternative to the big three networks, “Everybody Hates Chris” executive producer points out that that is how up starting networks operate. “They target an underserved audience — which is usually African-American, Latino, and [other] minorities — so they can get some numbers. Then once they become a little bit more financially viable, they move into mainstream programming”. (Armstrong and Watson 1-5)
During the 2009-2010 TV season, there are just seven African American related shows on the networks and on cable; five shows with a predominately African American cast, and two shows with African Americans leading an all white cast. Just four of them air on the major networks, FOX, “Brothers”, and animated comedy “The Cleveland Show”, and Laurence Fishburne starring on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Donald Faison starring in the new season of “Scrubs”. While there are three shows on the cable networks: TBS’ Tyler Perry’s creations, “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns”, and ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights”. Although, there has been debate if “The Cleveland Show” is really an African American show at all; while it does depict an African American family, and most of the characters are voiced by African American actors, the main character Cleveland, and his step-son Rallo, is voiced by the show’s creator Mike Henry, who is a white man. While some people are praising FOX executives for creating “The Cleveland Show”, and finally portraying an African American family on TV, many critics are livid at the fact that The show is portraying an African American family, but the show’s creators, and the voice of the title character is white. Some critics have gone as far as saying it’s on the border a cartoon version of blackface. (Itzkoff)
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 African 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 African American show.