It’s About Time: Major Networks Woo Black Viewers

The Golden Age of Black Television. Once upon a time, not long ago, it did exist. There was a television station that aired so many shows created by or featuring African American leads that it appeared to foreshadow an all new age for thespians and directors who self-identify themselves as black or African American.  This was long before each of the broadcast leaders were penning black sitcoms on seemingly an annual basis, back when BET was still airing mostly videos and infomercials. This was decades before TV One (2004), OWN (2011) and Aspire (2012) were created.  Back in the day, whenever a television station wanted to make itself relevant or “hip” to a younger viewing audience the very first thing they would do is create programming to attract African Americans.  FOX did this before with Living Single and Martin. The WB successfully milked this strategy as well with The Wayans Brothers (1995) and the Steve Harvey Show (1996). But none did it with as much fervor as UPN.  Malcolm & Eddie, Moesha, The Parkers, One-On-One, Guys Like Us, In the House and Hitz represent only a minor tally of the flood of black-themed programming that inundated the United Paramount Network from the time of the station’s founding in 1996 until the station was dissolved by way of merger with The CW in 2006. There had never been a station so committed to creating black shows as UPN back in the day. But alas those times seem like they were a million years ago, as the number of black faces steadily decreased on the major networks for years. In 1996, there were fifteen black shows on television. In 2001 that number dwindled to six.  As of January 2010 ABC, the CW, UPN and FOX did not have any shows with predominately black casts or featuring an African American star in a lead role.

But the pendulum of black television appears to be swinging in the opposite direction once again and it appears to be tied to ratings.  Generally speaking, people tend to support shows starring people they can relate to. Black people are no different.

Back during the February sweeps of 2013, NBC finished fifth behind Univision, and had fallen into third place among broadcasters overall in 2012-2013. Can you imagine the type of screaming and shouting that went on in the programming meeting following that revelation?    Though the numbers have largely fluctuated throughout the year, NBC was consistently in third place. That’s not horrible, but number one is always the goal when you’re a billion dollar corporation.  So, how does one increase its viewership in a relatively short period of time? You look to the past and discover a way to the future.

NBC, ABC and CBS were doing “the black thing” before UPN ever decided to get into network television. That’s My Mama (CBS), Good Times (CBS), Sanford and Son (NBC), What’s Happening (ABC) and The Jeffersons (CBS) were all used to gain viewers fast by catering to a back audience eager to see shows reflecting their own sensibilities in the 1970s.The black method was utilized in the late 80s by NBC with The Cosby Show and later in the early 90s with A Diff’rent World and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990).  However, the success of shows such as Friends and Seinfeld eventually signified the beginning of a brief departure from black television programming by the major networks in the late 90s. Stations like UPN and FOX used this opportunity to gain viewers by creating programming geared toward the underserved black viewer. However, it appears as though big letter networks are looking to get in the game.

Tyler Perry’s fairly recent injection of black content on TNT and the Oprah Winfrey Network has not gone unnoticed by the letter networks and it appears ABC is leading the way in biting the magic black bullet with a stealthy array of programming featuring talent of color.

Rapper Eve just closed the deal on a comedy from Kapital Entertainment and ABC Studios. The theme is being dubbed a multi-camera romantic comedy about an interracial relationship. Although the project is still looking for a writer, it’s slated to drop in 2014-15.  Funnyman Anthony Andersen is lined up for an ABC project as well.  Black-ish, is described as “a script commitment with penalty” and will be produced by ABC Studios and Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy.  The Game’s writer Kenya Barris is attached to the project.  

But comedies aren’t the only thing coming to the table. While BET had a recent hit with the Gabrielle Union vehicle Being Mary Jane, and FOX renewed the sci-fi drama Sleepy Hollow co-starring Nicole Beharie; FOX also has Michael Ealy as a cyborg in Almost Human. And NBC is attempting to make a return to diversity featuring Harry Lennix in a reoccurring role on Blacklist. While CBS is still mostly one pale color, ABC leads the diversity way, hitting the jackpot with Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy featuring a rainbow looking cast featuring Blacks, Latinos, and Asians. And everyone knows the power and popularity of Scandal starring Kerry Washington. Knowing the truth and success in dramas featuring people of color in major roles, now ABC has 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley attached to a new crime drama that has been given the green light. It’ll be used as a platform to discuss race, class and gender in America.  

Here’s an abbreviated list featuring some of the top programs featuring African Americans in major roles, scheduled to debut on network television in 2014:

Resurrection – Omar Epps stars as Martin, an immigration agent who is drawn into a mysterious phenomenon when people who were dead return from the grave. It airs Sundays, 9pm, ABC.

Believe Delroy Lindo co-stars as Winter, the protector of a girl with uncontrollable super powers. When her chosen guardian is killed, Delroy comes to the rescue. After a debut of the pilot, it airs Sundays at 9pm on NBC, beginning March 16.

The 100 – Isaiah Washington co-stars as the president in the sci-fi drama The 100, featuring of diverse cast struggling to survive in post-apocalyptic times. It debuts March 19, CW.

Empire – FOX has picked up a pilot for the Lee Daniels drama Empire. Starring Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Malik Yoba, it's set in the world of a hip hop empire, featuring original and current music.

Mr. Robinson – Craig Robinson has received a six-episode order from NBC for his new show, Mr. Robinson, about a musician adjusting to his new life as a music teacher in a big city middle school. Larenz Tate is slated to co-star.

The Kevin Hart Project – ABC has given a pilot order to a multi-camera comedy produced by Kevin Hart. The semi-autobiographical project is centered on a divorced couple that tries to stay friends for the sake of the children. If the project moves forward, Hart is expected to have a recurring role.



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