Saturday, February 25, 2012

Post-Racial America and the Demise of the Black TV Show

Over on Vulture there's a discussion about Hollywood's problematic relationship with black entertainment. Producer Gavin Polone blames the lack of black movies on a false notion among executives that all "ethnic" film is niche film. But can you blame such executive thinking about the big screen given the current segregation of the small one?

In 1992, two black shows were in the Nielsen Top 20 ("The Cosby Show" and "A Different World", natch) with "In Living Color", "Roc ", "Fresh Prince of Bel Air", "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and "Martin" bringing the rest of the melanin to the network line-up. In 2012, there are... zero. Black shows, in case you're wondering, have relocated to BET ("The Game") ("Reed Between the Lines") and TBS ("House of Payne") ("Are We There Yet?").

This is depressing. Not only because of the raw numbers, but because it's so reductive to think of a great show like "The Cosby Show" as a black show. Still, there's no denying that network shows with largely black ensemble casts have gone the way of your '90s overalls and door-knocker earrings...and it matters as I'll get to later.

But first... is the dearth of black TV shows purely a trend thing? There's a line of thinking I've come across that says "black people no longer need black shows" cause we're homogenous, and post-racial now... as though network TV existed to give black people uplifting fare until there was a black president who said, "Okay, I'll take it from here." But one thing I'm certain of is that television is not, and never was, in the business of making ethnicities feel better about themselves. Plus, those two shows in the top 20 in 1992 didn't get there with only black viewers tuning in.

Good writing makes the personal universal and perhaps we haven't seen a successful network black TV show in over a decade because black TV shows, post "A Different World" and "The Cosby Show", just haven't been good enough to capture an increasingly fragmented audience. This quality factor, coupled with Hollywood's short memory, and the CW/WB merger and its pursuant scramble to the middle to appeal to the widest demographic, was probably the death knell of the black TV show.

And so, in the absence of a "black" network TV hit, a theory emerges that white audiences won't watch black shows. This argument gets easier to make as "Everybody Hates Chris", "The Bernie Mac Show", even "Girlfriends" fade from the broadcast schedule. And JJ Abram's high-profile 2010 flop "Undercovers", starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as black undercover agents, cancelled after seven episodes on NBC, won't disprove anyone of the theory in a hurry, either.

As Polone argues, a music megastar may be the only one with the necessary juice to make Hollywood rethink the game (Polone thinks the most likely suspect is "Diddy") but with Tyler Perry and the segregated black audience being the new model, I wouldn't hold my breath.

The real loser in all this is the black actor. Sure there's still diversity on network TV, but with fewer roles, there's a smaller piece of pie to get divvied up. Polone draws an instructive contrast between the global release of Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness" and the niche marketing in black neighborhoods of Tyler Perry's "Good Deeds", even though they have very similar plots. But what made "The Pursuit of Happyness" a global film versus Tyler Perry's "Deeds", was its global star, Will Smith who, in case you've forgotten, started out as an actor on a black network TV show from our 1992 list "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." After all, wasn't Will Smith's exposure to a large network audience on NBC one of the reasons he was able to cross over and wield the influence he does today? Could it be that in shedding black network TV shows, the bankability, cross over appeal and influence of the next crop of black stars is being eroded?

Or put it another way, how many mainstream moviegoers can name a cast member on "House of Payne", despite it being the longest running black sitcom in history?