There are some subjects I get tired of writing about. One is the lack of quality black shows on television and the lack of lead minority actors on other shows. It’s still an important issue, but things rarely change. And I didn’t know how bad things really were on TV until I took a closer look at how shows get on the air.
There was a sitcom on years ago called “Me and the Boys.” It was about a single father raising his three sons in Los Angeles. Pretty typical stuff for a sitcom. Not too many people remember the show, which didn’t last very long. It was a show about a black father raising his sons, and it had a predominantly black cast. The show was canceled after only one season.
It’s true that shows are canceled all the time if ratings are bad, including black shows. But that wasn’t the case for this show. It was one of ABC’s top sitcoms for the 1994-95 season.
The series stared comedian Steve Harvey and finished that year at No. 20 in Nielsen ratings. Other shows with predominantly white casts finishing behind “Me and the Boys” that year were picked up?””Cybill,” (CBS) No. 22; “The Nanny,” (CBS) No. 24 and “Law & Order,” (NBC) No. 27. As some folk used to say, ‘Them numbers don’t add up.’
The point is: top 20 shows are rarely if ever given the ax. This isn’t the case with moderately successful black sitcoms or dramas. Given how hard it is to find a hit show, it’s almost unheard of to cancel a successful show to roll the dice on another. Black shows, unfortunately, are frequently “rolled.”
Network execs for years believed that there was not an audience for black-oriented programs. That changed slightly in the 1970s with “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times,” to name a few. But the attitudes of executives?”mostly white executives, mind you?”were still skewed. Black programs were by-and-large stereotypical?”a black family living in the ghetto, a black junkman and his son, and so forth. “The Jeffersons” were at least well-off and financially successful, but they were an exception rather than the rule. (By the way, “Sanford and Son” was based on a popular white British show called “Steptoe and Son.” “Three’s Company” was also inspired by a British incarnation, but no network executive would dare propose a sitcom about a raging heterosexual black man, playing a gay black man, living with two attractive black women…no way. Now a show about a black junk man?…that’s OK.)
The success of “Me and the Boys” was not expected, and execs had no idea what to do with it. And despite the fact that blacks watch more television than other segments of the population?”approximately 12 percent of the 102 million TV households, according to Nielsen Media Research?”our numbers alone are not enough to push a show into the top 20. Black shows have to become a “crossover” hit. But that still doesn’t guarantee that it will stay on the air.
Here’s the executives’ point of view?”if a black show can jump to the No. 20 slot, a white show can surely do better than that. That game is similarly played at all those upstart networks like the WB and UPN. Since they can’t crack into the big three’s viewership?”ABC, NBC and CBS?”with only two nights of programming, they try to find a target audience to build an initial viewership. Who’s the most obvious target audience? The people who watch the most television to begin with: blacks. This wouldn’t be too bad of an idea if these same shows weren’t pushed aside when a new night of programming is added each year. Eventually these shows end up lagging on the Sunday lineup, or off the network all together.
What did the WB’s lineup eventually look like? “Dawson’s ‘Iddowanna wait for something or another’ Creek” for young white folks. “7th Heaven” for suburban white folks. And “Charmed” for witchy white folks.
How about the UPN? Pro wrestling still dominates, but the network’s overall ratings are still bad enough that they can’t ditch all the black shows just yet.
And what about “The Cosby Show?” Well, two networks rejected the idea for the show outright. NBC reluctantly picked up the show, ordered only six episodes and crossed its fingers. “The Cosby Show,” once it finally made in on the air in 1984, debuted in the top 10. It remained the No. 1 show on television for the next four years. Its popularity happened in spite of, not because of, the network’s handling of it, thanks again to loyal black and enlightened white viewers. If “The Cosby Show” had finished No. 20, it would have been canceled, no matter how funny, positive and upbeat it was.
This is how black shows have been handled historically. Networks do try, but they usually miss the boat. What all viewers want is quality programming. Black viewers want quality shows about black people, and whites will watch them. If a black show is successful, networks should stick with it. In other words, we’re tired of being “rolled” over.CONTACT: email@example.com