Watching While Black Installment 1 February 24, 2013

Watching television is a vice to which I readily succumb. I generally watch programs for entertainment. However, I frequently find my ability to enjoy a program tempered by critical judgments. Often the judgments are artistic. But over my years of watching TV as a Black American man, I have also developed a critical awareness of the role of race in the way that TV programs have constructed the universes in which various narratives of the human condition unfold.

Are there in fact “Black” TV shows and “White” TV shows? I believe so. Are there “interracial” TV shows? I don’t think so, although I believe that in the past there were sincere efforts to produce such shows.

By “Black” shows, I mean programs that are set in a “Black” universe, a universe populated almost exclusively by Black people, with allusions, speech characteristics, mannerisms, etc., characteristic of Black Americans, using cultural codes that are completely intelligible to the majority of Black Americans. White people are rare and incidental in these programs. The majority of these programs are comedies, with plot situations that are the common stock of American sitcoms. While few such programs are presently in production, other than those in the Tyler Perry stable, there is a long list of “Black” shows, stretching back to the 1990s. Among these are Sister, Sister (1994-1999), Moesha (1996-2001), Martin (1992-1997), The Parkers (1999-2004), and Girlfriends (2001-2008),

White shows are the reverse of Black shows, much like the negative of a photograph. Those are set in a “White” universe, one in which the allusions, speech characteristics, mannerism, etc., are characteristic of White American middle- and working-class cultures. In this universe, Black people are largely absent. Those Blacks who are part of the continuing storyline are strikingly out of context. Persons of other “nonwhite” racial/ethnic groups are generally absent, even in situations where members of these groups might be present in the real world. “White” programs include all genres: sitcoms, to be sure, but also crime shows, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy shows, as well. There is no need to mention specific shows. They constitute the majority of television programs in production, present and past.

By “interracial” shows,  I am referring  to the those programs, largely produced in the 1970s and 1980s, that explicitly promoted a liberal, “integrationist,” egalitarian agenda, focused on affirming the value and dignity of Black Americans by presenting them as the protagonists and main characters of programs directed toward the majority of Americans, Black and White. These programs include The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), Sanford and Sons (1972-1975), The Jeffersons (1975-1985), and The Cosby Show (1989-1992). The universe constructed in these programs is mainly Black. But the characters are humanized to a degree heretofore absent in the portrayal of Black characters, while maintaining the standard two-dimensional accessibility of popular characters in mainstream TV sitcoms. These programs never strayed from the safe and popular sitcom genre. The White viewers who comprised the integrated audience for these shows were not forced to wrap their minds around a Black action hero. (There had been none since Bill Cosby’s sidekick role in the 1965-68 adventure-comedy series I Spy. For the moment, I am omitting a discussion of the “sidekick” role into which Black male actors have characteristically been slotted.)

Beginning in the 1990s, one routinely sees Black characters as regulars in mainstream (“White”) television series. They are part of the core cast: police detectives, doctors, nurses, suburban homeowners, spaceship crew, and all the other categories into which TV characters fall. These are not “interracial” programs in the terms of the older series. They carry on another tradition of “integrated” casting, in which an “acceptable” number of Black characters (usually one) are included in the show (today, the casting includes Hispanic and Asian characters as well). For example, in action (i.e., crime) series, the roles given to these characters are deceptively trivial, occupying positions that indicate authority but lack significance. The Black character is often the “boss,” the gruff but caring authority figure with no romantic adventures, action sequences, sexual tension, or high risk heroics. These are the prerogatives of the protagonist, who is invariably White.

Here, however, I must provide an update. It is now possible for the protagonist of a mainstream program to be a Black woman. Kerry Washington’s success in Scandal has confirmed her as a forceful protagonist and attractive romantic lead. Meagan Good’s starring role in Deception seems an effort to repeat Ms Washington’s success, apparently to no avail. Black men have not fared as well. On the networks we have only Blair Underwood in two short-lived series – City of Angels (2000) and The Event (2010-2011, as the first Hispanic POTUS), and Taye Diggs in Daybreak (2006). Black men have had supporting and ensemble roles in a number of crime and police procedural series, but have been shut out of the “hero” roles.

Several studies indicate that Blacks spend more time than other racial/ethnic groups watching television. However, their preferences strongly favor cable over broadcast network programs. With regard to major network programs, there is overlap among Black and White audiences, with specific programs having different rankings by the two groups. A recent survey ( ) finds that Black viewers want to see performers that look like them and who inhabit worlds with which they can identify. Feature films with Black stars and vintage “Black” programs vie with “reality” shows for their attention.

While Blacks consume a large amount of television, they are a small portion of the viewing audience. The financial resources of the traditional broadcast networks allow them to continue to attract larger audiences than their cable competitors. However, cable networks require smaller audiences to be viable and are directed toward niche markets. Broadcast networks must seek national audiences for their programs. As is common knowledge, cable programs are often more daring in their content, offering more explicit sex and violence, but also offering a level of quality generally associated with “art” films. Broadcast network programs have also become “edgier” but, ultimately, fall back into conventional formulae. However, one common characteristic of both broadcast and cable programs is the paucity of Black and other “nonwhite” characters in significant roles.  Exceptions include those I mentioned on broadcast TV and, on cable, Jada Pinkett Smith in Hawthorne ( TNT 2009-2011), David Harewood in a major role on Homeland (Showtime, 2011-present ), Don Cheadle in House of Lies (Showtime, 2012-present). Cable networks have clearly featured the largest number of Blacks in sufficient roles. This includes SyFy (Warehouse 13 and Eureka) and, especially, HBO (True Blood, The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and The Number One Ladies Detective Agency). Furthermore, cable programs, and especially HBO, have provided the greatest number of Black characters, in a variety of roles in their programs. This is not to say the cable programs have overcome casting based on racial stereotypes or that they accurately represent the complex pattern of racial/ethnic diversity in America or that they address race head-on and honestly. But their achievements are praiseworthy when compared to the scant progress shown on the broadcast networks.

It is obvious that I have not made an effort to note every major program that features or featured Black characters. And very clearly I have not attempted to address the programs that are conspicuous in their absence of Black characters. My primary interest, which I will address in future posts, is the way in which Black (and sometimes other “nonwhite”) characters are portrayed on broadcast and cable network programming. I believe that one source of insight into the lack of Black characters on TV shows is the way in which Black characters are presented on the shows where they are present.


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