- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

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.

“There were a lot of shows on Fox and then WB … for people of color,” says screenwriter John Ridley, citing series such as “The Wayans Brothers” and “Jamie Foxx.”

“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.

“The main flaw in that [NAACP] report is in paying so much attention to the big networks, because the simple fact is that’s not the way most people, black or white, watch the TV anymore,” says John H. McWhorter, a specialist on the intersection of race and pop culture for the Manhattan Institute in New York.

“Cable television has gotten much better in terms of the quality of their programming and presenting a more diverse product” than network television, Mr. Neal says. He points to cable dramas such as “The Wire” and minority-heavy reality offerings from VH1 such as “Flavor of Love” and “I Love New York” as signs that progress is being made.

Then there’s the Tyler Perry factor.

“Tyler Perry has been successful because what he recognized was that there was actually a niche market among African-Americans that was very rarely reflected in mainstream television and also very rarely catered to in terms of consumer taste,” Mr. Neal observes.

Mr. Perry’s new show, “Meet the Browns,” recently scored great numbers for the cable network WTBS. A press release noted that the show has “consistently ranked as ad-supported cable’s top comedy each week among adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.” Only “American Idol” garnered more black viewers in key demographics such as adults aged 18-34.

“Tyler Perry recognized early on when he was marketing his plays that that audience, if they were given a product that reflects their spiritual beliefs, their moral beliefs and their kind of view of the world, those audiences would come out and support a product,” Mr. Neal says.

Mr. Ridley is less enamored with Mr. Perry’s productions, saying that “what he does is fine; my only issue is that it’s more of the same of what Fox and UPN and WB were doing. It’s not programming wider.”

Instead, Mr. Ridley wishes networks would focus on developing series like “Ugly Betty,” which he says is “ethnocentric without being overly ethnic.”

“You never forgot that the family was Hispanic, but it was about fashion and business and all those kind of things. I thought it was terrific,” he adds

It comes down, finally, to perspective. Mr. McWhorter takes the long view — and likes what he sees.

“If you remember what television was like in 1990,” he says, “and you think about what TV is like in 2009, in terms of the black participation, the difference is so massive, the difference is so profound, that to be in Hollywood counting those heads is just utter folly.”


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