It is undeniable that blacks are underrepresented on television. Shows featuring all black casts are a rarity, and besides fan favorites like Basketball Wives or The Real House Wives of Atlanta, shows featuring African-Americans are few and far between.
Like the aforementioned shows, it seems like the only places featuring blacks are reality shows. While many of us turn up our noses at reality shows because “they don’t reflect us,” networks continue to air them because they rack up the ratings. These actions leave many to wonder why this is the only view the world has into the black experience. Yes, the Kardashians cursing out their mother and the New Jersey Housewives pulling each other’s hair out are equally offensive, but with such a small sample of African Americans on TV, who’s to blame for the limited representations of minorities– ourselves or the networks?
Speaking of networks, the first month of the fall season television line-up is wrapping up and all series and season premieres have been pushed out. If you’re anything like me, you should already have your DVR set and personal television show line-up in rotation.
One thing I’ve noticed season after season is that most TV shows that feature solely minorities simply do not make it, and many shows depicting more diverse casts doesn’t seem to last long either (i.e. The Playboy Club which was recently canceled, and Charlie’s Angels which is in danger of getting the axe). Is lack of talent the issue issue? Not even. There are plenty of talented black actors available and willing to work. However, some networks are not willing to donate the time, tools and resources needed to market and promote the types of shows that include a wide spectrum of talent. In this era of instant gratification, it seems like shows are not given time to develop, and are yanked after a few episodes. Shows like TNT’s Hawthorne, NBC’s Southland (which was later picked up by TNT), ABC’s Defying Gravity, and NBC’s Undercovers were all canceled despite boasting blacks in leading roles.
Were these shows simply bad productions or did networks fail to give them a chance?
Although some black actors manage to snag roles on network productions, many of the shows typically feature the same type of character: the sassy actor, always ready with the right comedic punch line or historical anecdote (think: Ice T. always schooling Benson and Stabler on “the hood”). However, is it a catch 22? Can we complain about the lack of black characters, and also complain about the roles they do receive?
Many times, minority viewers are critical of the lack of actors who look like them on television, forcing producers to at least try to diversify their cast. But should they? Does Mercedes (Amber Riley), really need to be on Glee? With her flat storyline it seems like her only contribution to the show is to belt out a soulful note at the end of a song or cover songs by black artists. I know her cast mates don’t have a hard time stepping in, so why is she there if they don’t seem intent on developing her character? On the flip side, Omar Epps’ character, Dr. Eric Foreman, on House plays an influential role in the show. On a series that deals with issues like class, race politics, and the foolishness of Dr. House, Dr. Foreman serves as a voice we would not hear if he was not there. His character is not just the stock black character that spouts soulful catch phrases, smiles and stay out of the camera—like Mercedes–he is an integral part of the show.
Despite how blacks are being portrayed on television, the quantity of quality programming targeting blacks is low. With the lack of independently owned and operated black networks it is no surprise our voice has become diluted, or worse, non-extent. Even with all the attacks against BET, the network serves as catalyst for new black shows. This week marks the season premiere of the highly anticipated show Reed Between The Lines featuring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. As much as we beg for television shows like this, will people even invest 30 minutes on a Tuesday night? Or will they be hypercritical of the show and label it a loser before it’s really began?
While the networks continue to ignore us, there is a high demand for programming catering to African Americans. Nielsen recently reported that African Americans watch more television than any other group. Not only does the average African American household have four or more televisions, but we also spends an average of seven hours a day watching them, so a market for shows featuring blacks is out there.
Because we tend to tune into shows like the Real Housewives of Atlanta rather than scripted shows, networks feel we will not support black sitcoms and dramas. But one reason we might not be tuning in is because many times when a black actor anchors a major network show, the show itself sucks (i.e. Undercovers). So can you blame us for not watching? However, web series like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, 12 Steps to Recovery, and cable dramas like The Wire, True Blood, and Luther show that well-written and well-acted shows featuring black actors can be successful.
So who’s to blame for the lack of black actors on TV? While the answer isn’t as clear-cut as we might think, one thing is certain: Audiences have to demand better while supporting actors and producers who are delivering quality programming. Because if we’ve learned nothing else from the success of Awkward Black Girl, it’s that if a quality product reaches the people…they can certainly turn it into a hit.
What do you think? Why can’t blacks seem to stay on network TV?