In the May 20th 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, there was an excellent article by Jennifer Armstrong titled "The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Black TV". Because I feel it's required reading for anyone who follows pop culture, I wanted to share it with you. Here it is:
Entertainment Weekly — Two years ago broadcast TV officially got out of the African-American sitcom business. The CW canceled the long-running Girlfriends in 2008, and the following year it yanked both Everybody Hates Chris and The Girlfriends spin off, The Game– also known as the last two successful black-eccentric shows on network television. ••►But today something is saving black TV from becoming as outmoded as Bill Cosby’s acrylic sweaters: basic cable, where scripted programming is experiencing explosive growth. In January, BET revived The Game to a record-breaking 7.7 million viewers–which is three times the audience it got on The CW and, in fact, twice the size of anything on the teen-skewing network now. (Sorry Gossip Girl.) The success of The Game and BET’s Queen Latifah produced romantic comedy Let’s Stay Together, which also premiered in January, has spurred the network to develop Reed Between the Lines, a new fall sitcom starring Girlfriends Tracy Ellis Ross and The Cosby’s Show’s Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Meanwhile, VH1 has joined up with Queen Latifah, who will be exec-producing its new dramedy Single Ladies (debuting in May 30), starring Clueless’ Stacy Dash.
In reality, this new generation of African-American-focused scripted TV can be traced to TBS’ success in 2007 when it acquired House of Payne from the proven brand of Tyler Perry. (Some 222 episodes later, the network recently announced it would be ending Payne but staying in the Perry business with For Better or Worse, an adaptation of his film Why Did I Get Married?) The reason for the big ratings and latest development rush is simple: pent-up demand. “I’ve had plenty of people say to me that it’s great to see something on TV that represents them”, says Jacque Edmonds-Cofer, exec producer of Let’s Stay Together”. “It’s also important for people to see that every African American woman is not a Real Housewife”. Adds VH1′s exec VP of original programming, Jeff Olde, “I think our shows should reflect the country we’re living in– go, Barack and Michelle! We’re thrilled that we have a large number of African-American women who watch us, and quite frankly, we’re always looking for new stories to tell.
Both BET and VH1 set their programming in response to direct viewer demands. BET first ran The Game in reruns, which sparked an onslaught of fans begging for the network to revive the show. VH1 initially shot Single Ladies as a TV movie, but market testing on the project garnered a “crazy ridiculous response,” Olde says. “[The marketers] SAID, ‘Not only do they want you to make this a series but the audience will actually be mad at you if they don’t see where these characters go next’.”
The ratings for the black-centric shows that have already premiered bear this out. Let’s Stay Together debuted in January to 4.4 million viewers, and Perry’s shows consistently hover near the 3 million mark. Even the competition has taken notice of The Game’s blockbuster debut: “Those numbers were wildly impressive to everybody,” says Michael Wright, TBS’ head of programming. “We’ve done really, really well with Tyler’s shows, but [The Game] surpassed even Tyler's ratings. That premiere number should've made everyone think, "that's a rating anyone would be happy to have.'"
So far, the broadcast networks have yet to act on the trend. While ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW have made progress the past few seasons when it comes to casting diverse ensembles, the selection of shows in the pipeline for this fall once again lacks series with predominantly African American (or Latino or Asian) casts. “The world on television should look like the world I see when I walk outside my door,” says Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, developing of the fall season’s strongest contenders with a black lead, ABC’s Damage Control starring Kerry Washington as PR guru. And Queen Latifah, who starred for five seasons on Fox’s Living Single, sees African-American series as a way to represent a point of view sorely missing on television: “People live in bubbles and they perpetuate racism and classism. There’s still plenty of places they can go [on TV] that are as un-diverse as they could possibly be,” says the Ladies producer. “It’s just something that’s going to be a continuing fight, to try to keep making these things happen.”
Regardless of why the networks program for black audiences, viewers are clearly hungry for these shows: Not only are the few shoes doing well, reruns of long-cancelled series like My Wife and Kids and Everybody Hates Chris still top cable charts among African-American viewers. Says Charlie Jordan Brookins, senior vice president of programming for BET: “We’re not necessarily trying to say this is the new frontier. We’[re trying to super-serve an audience who has been underserved." Adds Malcolm-Jamal Warner, "The black viewership is important. Black shows do make money. It seems like a no brainer.
[Entertainment Weekly Columnist: Jennifer Armstrong; Additional reporting by Archana Ram and Tim Stack]
What are your thoughts on the article and the current state of diversity (or lack of it) in regards to scripted TV? Also, Jennifer Armstrong is also one of the co-founders of the site The Sexy Feminist.