Back in the day, you could turn to just about any major TV network and see predominantly- or all-Black casts on primetime shows. Now, those casts have . . . well, just about faded to black. Game over.

Turn on the small screen today. Rather than casts of brown, you’ll peep mostly-white ensembles, with chocolate sprinkles—but in unprecedented numbers.

When it comes to scripted TV shows, is it better to be in the mix or be the whole enchilada?

In the 90s, all-Black casts, predominantly-Black ensembles, and casts with Black main characters were everywhere on network TV’s primetime dramas and comedies: Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Martin, Eve, Living Single, Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends. And though I’d like to forget Malcolm and Eddie and Homeboys in Outer Space, they represented too.

Nielsen recently reported that African-Americans have the highest TV-watching rate in comparison to other ethnicities. That average is 7 hours 12 minutes each day—above the national average of 5 hours 11 minutes.

With so much tube time, you’d think mostly-Black casts would abound, right? Not so.
When it comes to the major networks AMC, CBS, NBC, FOX and THE CW, here’s the not-so-good news: there are far fewer brown faces on each show. The good news: we abound, alright, on many more shows overall. From Grey’s Anatomy to Gossip Girl, from SVU to CSI, from Desperate Housewives to Parenthood and many more, African-Americans are sprinkled throughout current ensemble casts in unprecedented numbers.

Only cable channels BET and TBS have predominantly Black casts in full effect: BET’s The Game, Let’s Stay Together, the upcoming Reed Between the Lines; TBS’ Tyler Perry juggernauts just-cancelled House of Payne, Meet the Browns and upcoming For Better or for Worse.

And just take a look at who’s who on the primetime pilot schedule for Fall 2011: roughly 33 Black actors and actresses on new shows including Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Gabrielle Union . . . and Boris Kodjoe (we likey).

ABC
Angela Bassett and Orlando Jones are elite police in Identity
Annie Ilonzeh kicks into Charlie’s Angels redux
Boris Kodjoe gives good power in Georgetown
Michael Beach arrests in cop drama Partners
Jesse L. Martin and Della Reese fight good and evil in Hallelujah
Debbie Allen and Sherri Saum step on stage dance family drama Grace
Kerry Washington and Columbus Short manage crises in Shonda Rhimes’ Damage Control (lead role written for African-American woman)
Henry Simmons muscles into Man Up

CBS
Taraji P. Henson in crime drama Person of Interest
Michael Boatman stops hearts in untitled medical drama
Brandon T. Jackson makes allies in buddy PI show Hail Mary
Damon Wayans talks it up in untitled sports radio show
Lamorne Morris works his way up in The Assistants

NBC
Traci Thoms flies in Wonder Woman
Steve Harris thrills in cop alternate reality REM
Naturi Naughton titillates in untitled Playboy pilot
Russell Hornsby fights beasts in Grimm
Tim Meadows downsizes in untitled workplace comedy
Octavia Spencer cuts it up in family medical comedy
Maya Rudolph gives advice in untitled comedy on parenthood

FOX
XZibit gets therapy in Weekends at Bellevue
Michael Clarke Duncan locates the lost in The Finder
Damon Wayans Jr. bunks with roomies in The New Girl
Richard T. Jones fills a father’s void in Council of Dads
Aisha Dee gets schooled in I Hate My Teenage Daughter
Gabrielle Union and Kevin Hart car pool in Little in Common
Robin Givens sees dead people in Tagged

THE CW
Cress Williams doctors down south in Hart of Dixie

While Thursday night viewing parties for Cosby Show followed by A Different World may be cherished memories, these numbers are an encouraging start. And let’s not forget that a lot of Black actors are getting work.

Still. There was nothing like Bill & Clair, Hillman and The Peach Pit. The original Sex and the City that was Rejine, Max, Sinclair and Khadijah. Martin and Gina, and never knowing what Tommy did for a living. Sumthin’ special, every week, for us, looking like our friends and fams, from us to the world.

What do you think: is it progress to have 1-2 Black faces on many network primetime TV scripted shows? Or would you rather see a few all-Black casts lighting up your small screen?

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  • Thanks for the discussion. I hope it brings about a change in the world of TV as we know it. I am becoming frustrated with the “predominately WHITE” actors that are cast in many of these shows, sitcoms, daytime tv..etc. As an African American woman, I would love to see more of my people on television again as it was back in the 70’s and 80’s. I am hoping for substantial shows and not silly sit com type stuff. Where are the African American women on certain “housewives” shows..(besides Atl housewives) surely we have some wealthy women out there who can participate. Why is there such a distinct difference on tv when it comes to race? We must ask ourselves, is it racist and totally unfair. More than ever we are seeing less and less DIVERSITY on television and there has to be a reason. Nevertheless, there are more than just black and white folks who can act and are talented. There should be a MIXTURE of all races on tv based on individual talent and not just skin color. Some shows provide the “token” African American or “token” Hispanic etc. It think it is all ridiculously unfair to send subliminal message to the viewers that white skin gets the job hands down. I believe in equal opportunity for all races.

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  • lauren

    Ever notice that there is always a black person in the background of EVERY show when the actors are sitting in a restaurant? There is not a black person in the restaurant every time we go out to eat. Why are they doing this? I do not notice hispanics, asians or other minorities in every shot like you see blacks? Whats with the media catering to this minority?

  • Smoker

    Blacks don’t leave tips in restaurants so they are upset with the service.

  • Katherine McChesney

    Hart of Dixie is disgustingly politically correct. It is Hollywood liberals version of the South.