Prime Time Apartheid
Market forces have marginalized blacks on network TV -- and it's only getting worse.
By Jason Gay
MARCH 2, 1998: On September 20, 1984, the National Broadcasting Company premiered The Cosby Show, a half-hour situation comedy starring the popular entertainer Bill Cosby. Cosby, of course, played Dr. Cliff Huxtable, an affable yet sometimes curmudgeonly obstetrician who, along with his lawyer wife, Clair, presided over an energetic brood of children, ranging from Sondra, a Princeton senior, to Rudy, a precocious, gap-toothed five-year-old. The Huxtables lived in a well-appointed brownstone in Brooklyn, where each Thursday at 8 p.m., for eight years, they navigated through a series of family crises, mostly trivial: report cards, lost teeth, driver's licenses, bad haircuts, and, naturally, first dates.
The Cosby Show was an instant TV success. It was the country's third-most-watched program in its debut season, and number one by its second year. Its triumph revived not only the then-flagging sitcom genre but also NBC, which had been running third in the ratings. But the most impressive achievement of The Cosby Show was a social one: every week, millions of people were sitting back on the couch, enjoying and identifying with the life of an African-American family.
"Cosby showed you could be funny and entertaining and still take the high ground," recalls Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard who served as a script consultant for The Cosby Show. "And by celebrating African-American culture, it also had a social influence."
Indeed, 15 years after The Cosby Show debuted -- and five years after the Huxtables left the air -- we find an abundant African-American presence in prime-time television entertainment. Cosby himself is on CBS with a self-titled sitcom. Two fledgling networks, WB and UPN, devote most of their schedules to comedies with largely African-American casts. Fox has pinned high hopes on two new sitcoms with black stars. There are late-night programs with African-American hosts challenging Leno and Letterman. There are TV movie "events" starring African-Americans, such as this week's miniseries The Wedding, produced by Oprah Winfrey. Black performers also enjoy an unprecedented number of prominent, well-written roles on prestige network dramas like ER, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Touched by an Angel, and Chicago Hope. Even television's femme du jour, Ally McBeal, has an African-American best friend who, like her, is a lawyer.
The picture, however, is deceiving. Despite these apparent gains, prime-time entertainment television is actually becoming more segregated than ever. Whereas previous decades saw programs such as The Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, and The Flip Wilson Show attract broad and racially diverse audiences, the 1990s have been a decade of increasing racial division in the ratings. With a few exceptions, black audiences watch black-oriented shows, and white audiences watch their own. (See chart, below.) Even today's multiracial dramas -- ER excluded -- have failed to attract substantial African-American followings.
At the same time, the explosion of black-oriented shows on new networks like WB and UPN has been tainted by a resurgence of old and unflattering stereotypes about African-Americans. While these shows have attracted strong black audiences, critics say they are too often plagued by mediocre writing, sophomoric acting, and behavior that, at its worst, recalls the most embarrassing minstrel programs of the 1940s. "I would rather see Amos 'n' Andy," Spike Lee told a college audience last year. "At least they were straight-up about Uncle Tommin'. We've gone backwards."
But racism alone doesn't explain the current state of African-Americans on TV; more than anything else, the marketplace does. Dramatic changes to the television business -- the long-term loss of viewers by the once mighty ABC, CBS, and NBC; the rise of self-styled new networks Fox, UPN, and WB; the profusion of cable programming; the alternatives offered by home video and even the Internet -- have stratified American audiences, sending programmers into ever more feverish competition for viewers. Newer networks, eager to establish an audience, have aggressively courted black viewers with a full slate of black-themed programming. Older networks have responded by growing whiter, largely limiting African-Americans to dramas and bit parts on comedies. The result of this commercial scramble is a kind of prime-time apartheid. TV may be a free market, but the result is clear: separate, unequal networks for black and white viewers.
There are also signs that network interest in African-American programming, as inadequate as it is, may diminish even further. Though executives have been encouraged by the support that young, white audiences show for some black comedies -- a trend described in a recent New York Times article -- they acknowledge that the vast majority of shows with African-American casts aren't attracting large enough white audience ratings to keep them on the air for long. As emerging networks like WB and UPN expand, experience suggests that they are almost certain to scale back their current investment in black-themed shows.
"People thought that The Cosby Show was going to open up a whole new arena," says Poussaint. "But that hope is passing us by."
The loss of hope that occurred between the debut of The Cosby Show and the emergence of Homeboys in Outer Space (UPN, Class of '96) can be traced to the unprecedented fragmentation of audiences from the early 1980s to the present. Nothing illustrates this change better than the story of Fox.
Founded in 1986, Fox made its debut with an abbreviated fall schedule in 1987. It staked its claim by airing alternative, sometimes controversial, programming that targeted audiences underserved by the Big Three (ABC, CBS, and NBC) -- specifically, young audiences in their teens and 20s, and ethnic viewers. This approach yielded some hits (Married . . . with Children, 21 Jump Street, The Simpsons) and plenty of schlocky misses (the sitcom Women in Prison). But even as its critics scoffed, Fox slowly carved out a market niche.
Not only was Fox's roster of independent stations heavily concentrated in urban markets where many African-Americans lived, but the network discovered that the young audience it had courted was receptive to black-oriented programming. As a result, the network began aggressively wooing black viewers with shows aimed at them. There was the hip-hop variety show In Living Color, the integrated-family comedy True Colors, and Roc, a sitcom starring the renowned African-American character actor Charles S. Dutton. By 1993, Fox had more black-themed shows than any other broadcast network.
"Fox took it upon itself to develop programming that would appeal to African-American audiences," says Peter Roth, who became the president of Fox Entertainment in 1996.
But Fox's critics charged that the network was offering black viewers low-grade shows that too often drifted into negative stereotyping. Take Martin, a Fox sitcom starring African-American comedian Martin Lawrence. For one thing, it was misogynistic: in the show's most notorious role, an in-drag Lawrence played Sheneneh Jenkins, a sassy-tongued next-door neighbor who was the butt of countless jokes. "Hoisting his crotch, spewing black jive stereospeak . . . Martin is the apotheosis of the sex-obsessed homeboy shucking his way to nowhere," charged Newsweek. Similar criticism came from some of Fox's own stars. When Roc, an excellent sitcom by comparison, was canceled for poor ratings in 1994, Charles S. Dutton lashed out. "Fox wanted monkey shows," Dutton told Electronic Media magazine. "That's what they wanted Roc to be."
Still, as Dutton acknowledged, black people were watching those shows. Martin became one of Fox's biggest hits. The network surged forward on the strength of obsessive counterprogramming, the old TV strategy of chasing an audience completely different from the competition's -- an audience, like African-Americans, not served by the available options. Thanks to this contrarian approach, and to such smart moves as bidding $1.2 billion to land NFL football in 1994, Fox -- a laughingstock in the late 1980s -- is poised to overtake CBS as the country's third-most-popular network. The term Big Three, as Peter Roth points out, is an anachronism -- now, it's the Big Four.
Fox's success established a formula for other new networks to follow. "It became the paradigm for coming on-line," says Herman Gray, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who is the author of Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness" (University of Minnesota Press, 1995). In 1995, when financial interest and syndication ("Fin-Syn") laws were loosened, allowing broadcast networks to develop and sell their own programs (as opposed to being forced to buy them from independent production companies), studios like Paramount and Warner Bros. -- fearful of losing a market for their shows -- jumped into the network game. UPN and WB were born. Their model? Fox.
Jordan Levin, vice president and head of development for WB, freely admits to following Fox's lead in wooing the African-American audience. "That's a built-in audience that is open to trying new services," he says. (UPN failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
Both WB and UPN were quick studies. The two new networks have only a few nights of prime-time shows, but they now dominate African-American programming. WB scheduled six shows with primarily black casts at the start of the fall 1997 season: The Steve Harvey Show; The Jamie Foxx Show; The Wayans Brothers; The Smart Guy; Sister, Sister; and The Parent Hood. UPN had five: Moesha (starring pop songstress Brandy); Sparks; In the House; Good News; and Malcolm & Eddie.
Meanwhile, the Big Four seem content to leave the field to the upstarts. This past fall, of the roughly 120 shows in prime time, Fox and CBS contributed three black-oriented shows each. NBC introduced one, the since-canceled Built to Last. ABC, which is owned by Disney, had none.
There's little question that WB's and UPN's overtures to African-American viewers have helped both outlets establish a toehold in the ultracompetitive network environment. A recent study of Nielsen ratings by TN Media, a Manhattan firm that analyzes television viewership for advertisers, reports that UPN is already the most popular network in African-American households. WB is second. And between them, the two newest networks air seven of the 10 most popular shows among black audiences. "Black viewership has shifted away from the Big Four networks," the study concludes.
But, as with Fox, WB's and UPN's black-oriented programming has real problems. Last spring, eight shows on UPN, WB, and Fox were singled out by the Hollywood/Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP for what chapter president Billie J. Green called their "horrible" representation of black life. (Green's chapter has consistently locked horns with the national NAACP, which has, incredibly, handed out one of its "image awards" to Martin Lawrence.) Rapper Chuck D dismissed UPN as the "United Plantation of Negroes," and Poussaint laments what he calls the "clownish, buffoonish" style of these shows. "It's really old-style," he says.
Indeed, the criticism leveled at some of the current black-themed shows resembles the protests over programs like Amos 'n' Andy nearly 50 years ago. And why, critics ask, do African-Americans appear almost exclusively in comedies?
"It's the safest way to portray us," the late African-American filmmaker Marlon Riggs once said. "Even when the portrayal might have somewhat of a critique of America, nonetheless, the critique is typically undercut by our ability to laugh at what is presented. In that sense, comedy is safe, and remains safe for the representation of African-American society."
On a recent night, I watched UPN's Malcolm & Eddie. Malcolm, played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (formerly Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show), is the roommate of Eddie, played by the comic actor Eddie Griffin; both men are bachelor entrepreneurs. In this episode, Eddie grows irritated when a woman with whom he has been having a clandestine sexual relationship suggests that they go out on a date in public. He's reluctant because, well, she's not the prettiest woman in the world. Rejected, the woman turns to another suitor (a cop played by former NBA stiff John Salley); this enrages Eddie, who wins back the woman's heart with some sensitive sweet talk, a few jokes, and some . . . tap dancing. (Malcolm offers moral support.) The episode concludes with Eddie nudging the woman back into her apartment for another top-secret booty call.
Malcolm & Eddie isn't the worst program I've ever watched (The Jenny McCarthy Show comes to mind), but it's an embarrassment all the same. Still, defenders of the new sitcoms -- including numerous African-Americans -- complain that these shows, aimed at young audiences who like the slapstick humor, are held to a higher standard than white programs are. "Black people can be so hard on black people, where white people embrace," actor Marlon Wayans said recently. "If you look at Jim Carrey, he's considered a genius. But if a black person does some physical comedy, [he's] considered a buffoon."
Perhaps. But there's no doubt that today's black-oriented prime-time programming is weak -- even compared to network prime time in general, which isn't exactly Masterpiece Theatre. Even network bosses admit this. "There is still a paucity in network television of qualitatively superior, thoughtful, sophisticated fare featuring African-Americans in lead roles," says Fox's Roth.
Though the newer TV networks are committed to grabbing African-American viewers, they are less committed to giving them something worthwhile to watch. Says Gray, the University of California sociologist: "The biggest disappointment about these new networks . . . is that they aren't doing anything interesting."
What made The Cosby Show unique -- and a nearly decade-long ratings sensation -- has long been a subject of debate. Of course, there was Cosby himself; like Andy Griffith and Lucille Ball before him, he had enormous appeal. He was already a proven commodity with white audiences, who knew him well from his standup act, his lead roles on shows like I Spy and Fat Albert, and his ubiquitous presence as a Jell-O pitchman. But it's also true that Dr. Huxtable's sarcasm-tinged style of parenting -- modeled on Cosby's own comic personality -- made for an intriguing and immensely watchable TV dad. And throughout its run, The Cosby Show benefited from mostly top-notch comedic acting and smart writing.
But more than anything else, The Cosby Show worked because it was accessible. Though the Huxtables were African-American and affluent (some critics attacked the show as a roseate Reagan-era fantasy), their family troubles were recognizable to almost anyone. Indeed, white and black audiences supported The Cosby Show with equal fervor; despite its imperfections, the sitcom provided a tiny but important piece of common ground between the races. When the LA riots erupted in 1992 -- ironically, on the program's final night in prime time -- Mayor Tom Bradley begged residents to "stay at home and watch Cosby."
Those close to The Cosby Show recognized the sitcom's impact. "Television influences," says Poussaint. "The more people you have out there who are role models that not only black people but white people see, it contributes to the reality of American life. It helps children and others see that the world is not all, or even mostly, white."
Nowadays, though, the potential for that kind of influence is evaporating, and that's ominous news for black-centered programs. The segmentation of audiences has scattered viewers to the point where racially diverse support -- known as "crossover" -- is rare. Crossover propelled programs like The Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into the top 20. Crossover is essential to network television's success; without it, most programs are doomed.
That's because more than anything, television is a numbers business, and success is tied to ratings. And though black people, proportionately speaking, watch more television than white people do -- some 70 hours per household per week, compared to 50 hours for white households -- they are vastly outnumbered in the population at large. According to the TN Media study, blacks represent 11.7 million viewing households; whites, 83.47 million. And though networks are always happy to have black viewers, it's whites that advertisers covet. Black audiences may give a new show or network a short-term boost, but in the long run, white viewers are a necessity.
"This remains a business of volume," says Fox's Roth. "If the black audience is the only segment of the population watching [a given program], that probably would translate into a low enough number that it wouldn't justify its continuation."
That's sobering news for many of today's black-oriented shows. Though it's true, as the New York Times reported this past Sunday, that a promising number of young white viewers are tuning into black programs on Fox, WB, and UPN, that audience is simply too minuscule to ensure the long-term future of those shows. "The economics of television networks demand that you reach a broad-based audience," says WB's Levin.
And the fall 1997 ratings show that most of today's black-themed shows aren't finding that broad-based audience. Instead, audiences divide strongly along racial lines -- a pattern that has continued uninterrupted for eight years. You can go right down the list: Between Brothers, the Fox sitcom that was the number one-rated show among black audiences this fall, was 117th among white audiences. The second-most-popular show with blacks, Living Single, was 115th. Not a single show in the black top 10 breaks the white top 100. (Moesha, which the Times cited as a show with promising support among white teens, still ranks 123rd with whites overall.)
The converse is also true with shows that rate well among white audiences. Top 20 shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, and The X-Files have meager black followings. In fact, the only prime-time shows that appeared in both the black and white top 20 were Monday Night Football, Touched by an Angel, and ER.
"The segmentation of audiences is the biggest threat to television today," says Levin "The wild [disparity] speaks volumes about where we are as a country."
And because of expanding viewing options, the segmentation is growing. Fifteen years ago, the Huxtables weren't competing against 50 channels. Today's prime-time audiences are less captive than ever. Networks have tried to fight audience erosion with packaging (NBC's "Must-See TV") and "brand" recognition (Fox continues to bill itself as a brash alterna-network), but still, viewers are leaving.
"Networks no longer get the huge numbers they did in TV's early days," notes Gray.
But networks point out that even when they make a serious attempt to court a diverse audience, their efforts often fail. Today's prestige drama series -- which networks like to herald for their black characters -- do not attract large numbers of African-American viewers. Though ER does well with black audiences (it's 19th overall), dramas like NYPD Blue, Homicide, Chicago Hope, and Law & Order do not. The reluctance of black audiences to embrace such shows is the subject of some debate. Some critics believe it's because these dramas, despite their black characters, are usually identified with white stars; others think it's because the older networks that air them have seen their black audiences eroded by the rise of Fox, UPN, and WB.
Still, the prestige dramas at least have a core white audience to rely on. The same can't be said of today's black-oriented programs -- and it's making executives wonder whether such shows can ever cross racial lines into long-term prosperity. (And as bad as prime time is for blacks, it's even worse for other ethnic groups.)
"We ask ourselves often, Does the fact that an African-American is the protagonist of a particular show make it exclusively appealing to an African-American audience?" says Fox's Roth. "That seems to be [true]. People often watch characters that they can relate to."
Indeed, it's natural for audiences to seek characters that they can empathize with. But again, it comes down to numbers: critics worry that if new networks cannot secure broad-based audiences for their black-oriented shows, they will begin to eliminate them. Gray says it's already happening. "Once Fox got its legs, it basically abandoned [black audiences]," he argues. And it's true that Fox's signature shows today -- the ones that get all the hype and build the network's identity -- are programs like The X-Files, King of the Hill, Party of Five, and Beverly Hills 90210. Likewise, UPN's "hype" shows are not its black sitcoms, but programs like Star Trek: Voyager and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. WB's is Dawson's Creek, a twentysomething thirtysomething created by hot screenwriter Kevin Williamson.
Ratings aren't the only factor pushing new networks toward white audiences. Networks are exceedingly conscious of their public image and "brand" identity. According to Douglas Alligood, who studies minority viewership trends for the Manhattan advertising agency BBDO, no network wants to be defined as a predominantly black network. " When a network gets too minority-specific, it turns off white viewers," says Alligood.
That's not necessarily racism, says J. Fred MacDonald, a professor emeritus from the University of Northeastern Illinois and the author of Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. From their beginnings, broadcast networks have been dedicated to pursuing as big an audience as possible. And that hasn't changed.
"These guys in Hollywood aren't racist if they don't have black people on television," MacDonald says. "They went after the money, and that's capitalism. You can't impose a great liberal value system on the economics of television. What works is what counts, not what you should do."
But great television invariably involves imagination and taking chances. The Cosby Show was initially rejected by ABC before NBC, plummeting in the ratings, decided to gamble on the show. At the time, situation comedies were considered dead; only one sitcom sat among the top 10 shows in prime time. And, clearly, a sitcom with an African-American cast was considered an even bigger risk.
Where are today's risk-takers? Changes in the television landscape have made achieving crossover very difficult. But television is also an enormously derivative medium. If one network can break the mold and develop strong, high-quality African-American shows and market them successfully to wide audiences, others will inevitably follow. It's not impossible. One is reminded of the early years of MTV, when the cable network steadfastly avoided black programming, claiming its white audience wouldn't support it. But the crossover successes of artists such as Michael Jackson -- and, later, programs like Yo! MTV Raps -- made executives change their minds. Today, it's hard to imagine MTV without a roster of African-American performers.
The more network executives assume that black-oriented shows will not attract broad audiences, however, the more they ensure that result. If networks won't take chances on developing high-quality African-American actors, writers, and shows -- and attempt to sell those shows to a wider audience -- they are committing black programming to failure. For his part, Fox's Roth says, "I would hate for any one audience to not be given an opportunity because it isn't large enough."
Ideally, all television networks would recognize their obligation to accommodate and represent all viewers, because they're missing a major opportunity if they don't. Programs that appeal to diverse audiences can produce an economic windfall, as The Cosby Show and others proved. But there's an equally important social motivation: despite television's faults, the best programming can provoke discussion and shape attitudes. It can change the way we think, and bring us closer together.
"We spend so much time in front of the television that it's part of the lexicon of daily life," says Herman Gray. "It's the thing we all have in common and talk about. It's where our community is made."
But right now, America's black and white audiences are drifting farther apart. On one side of this divide stands Jerry Seinfeld, commiserating with Frasier Crane and Drew Carey. On the other side are Malcolm and Eddie, hanging out with Moesha. As it approaches the 21st century, network television is programming in a way that segregates the races -- and the possibility of common ground is fading.
Jason Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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