At the same time many in Hollywood are celebrating the election of President Obama and the racial healing it signals, some in the entertainment industry have turned a critical eye on themselves, noting the disappearance of several minority-oriented television programs from the airwaves.
Prompted by a December NAACP report, critics are blaming the merger of the urban-friendly WB and UPN networks into the CW network, which has led to a reduction in the number of shows focused on, and marketed to, black viewers.
“Now, there was a lot of talk about how those shows were sort of ghettoized just on Fox, or just on the WB or just on UPN when they started, but they were there,” says Mr. Ridley, who has worked on television and movie projects for more than 15 years. “It was a lot of work — work for actors, work for writers, work for directors. All that’s sort of gone away.”
Yet, even as the broadcast-programming schedules have cut down on black-centered programming, the casts on other programs have become more diverse.
“All four major broadcast networks have made important strides in increasing diversity,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People acknowledges in its report, “Out of Focus, Out of Sync — Take 4.” “More actors of color are on-air, particularly as ensemble players.”
Stanley Crouch, author of “The All-American Skin Game, or Decoy of Race,” says he thinks this is a natural evolution. “Do you just want to have vehicles that employ black actors? Or do you want to have television shows that are just so good anybody likes them?” he asks.
“African-American audiences will go to shows where they see quality characters that reflect themselves,” says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University. Mr. Neal says he thinks audiences have grown tired of the one-note programming in which UPN and the WB specialized.
“People identify with the individual characters if the characters are written well enough to have the charisma that crosses the lines of class, religion, ethnic background,” echoes Mr. Crouch. “People like Denzel Washington because he’s Denzel Washington. I don’t think people go to see him because they say, ‘Oh, I want to go see a black actor today.’”
“You don’t see suburban black America or urbane black America,” Mr. Ridley counters, lamenting the lack of shows focused on middle-class black life. “Just urban black America. It’s hard to believe in 2009 that we basically don’t exist on television. Hip-hop, basketball, things like that, plenty of it. But just no other version of black people. Honestly, it’s unbelievable that we get the presidency, but we’re still not able to get on prime-time television.”
Such programs have succeeded in the past: “The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “The Bernie Mac Show” were all high-quality sitcoms focused on middle-class or wealthy black families. There are no such shows on any of the four major broadcast networks now, and even the CW has cut its black-centered programming down to one night — Friday — and two shows — “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game.”
Mr. Ridley thinks the problem begins in the boardroom.
“You go into a room to pitch — I’ve done this — and you’re pitching to white people, the most liberal white people you’ve ever met, but it’s very hard to convince them that their neighborhood doesn’t look like the rest of America,” he says.
“You ask for a donation at the end of the meeting, they’ll dig deep into their pockets. But if you ask for a couple of million bucks to put a TV show on … , ” Mr. Ridley continues, pointedly leaving his sentence incomplete.
It’s a different story on cable, where a seemingly limitless number of channels and programming hours has translated into more progress in delivering entertainment to a wider array of demographic niches.View Entire Story
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