Television and Media Essay - African Americans and TV Shows

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It is estimated that African Americans spend about four to five hours more than the general public on watching television a week. Yet still with these findings, there are only 18 shows that feature an African-American cast or lead character out of the 115 that air on the six major broadcast networks. Even with this imbalanced ratio, there are reasons why there are so few programs featuring leading African Americans, despite the great amount of blacks that are consistent television viewers (Hall 12).

 

It is thought that television producers are just trying to play it safe by sticking to what they know and what they are used to doing. It has been hard for networks to duplicate shows that have satisfied the viewers, such as "The Cosby's", "The Jefferson's", and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," Creating this kind of "crossover" audience is essential in a show's success(Hall 12).

 

A more recent show that has been able to gain this success is "The Hughley's". It is said to be "probably one of the best things that's happened this year" according to WB Entertainment President Garth Ancier. This show is said to have "wide spread appeal", and it also helps that it follows right after "Home Improvement"(Hall 12). Although following such a well known show helps out with the viewers, the show is getting more and more popular, and will hopefully cause a change in the way networks associate black television with failure.

 

Even though there is at least one African American in almost every drama ensemble, you don't see any dramas with a full cast of African Americans (Hall 12). It is assumed that if one were to be put on the air, it wouldn't do well because it is something that hasn't been done before. African Americans are automatically associated with being comedians. All of the shows featuring a mostly black cast are comedy shows. This is a reason why networks would stay away from creating a drama with a full cast of African Americans.

 

"The industry has not accepted that people are different", says Louis Carr, executive producer of Black Entertainment Television (BET)(Hall 12). BET has done a lot for African Americans on Television. Not only does it show music videos, but it has an award show where it celebrates and appreciates African American stars.

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It also includes sports highlights, current news updates affecting the black community, movies for African Americans, and a comedy show. This channel has done so much for African Americans on television.

 

Unfortunately, this is the only channel that concentrates completely on African Americans. Next to this channel, UPN is carrying more shows targeted toward an African American audience, yet it still doesn't compare to the air time that African Americans get on BET. Even on this channel, there are still no game shows, morning shows, soap operas or dramas that revolve completely around African Americans.

 

This problem may not always be the result of racism. Television is all about business and making money, and executives want to stick with topics that have been previously successful. A main topic that networks have stuck to over the years deals with Caucasians in New York City.

 

Shows such as "Seinfeld", "Friends", and "Will and Grace" have all been extremely successful, and are all based around the same setting. Perhaps network executives can begin to research how these previously successful television topics can be related to an African American audience.

Advertisements also play a big part in the airing of shows. If advertisers won't pay for a time slot during a show, there will eventually be no network. Also, an advertiser is not going to pay for a time slot during a show that not many people watch (Lyons 9). Another problem with this is that advertisers tend to relate the product they are selling to the audience that is attracted to a specific show. You don't see very many commercials/products that relate to the African American community.

 

Not only is this going to affect the amount of African American shows that are aired, but it effects marketing which is another area which lacks blacks.. If an advertiser is looking to attract a specific audience to his/her product, they will pay for a time slot which they think is during a show that will attract that specific audience. If there is a lack of black related products, there are not a lot of advertisers looking for a time slot during an African American based show. This has a big affect on the networks picking and choosing of new shows for the fall line-up.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been fighting for an "ethnic cleansing" of the airways. President Kweisi Mfume is outraged by the lack of African American stars in the 26 shows debuting this fall. He blames it on "clueless network executives"(Lyons 9). It is uncertain if this kind of activity will really help out African American's on TV. Controversy has been stirred up about the stereotypical depictions of blacks in sitcoms such as "The Wayan's Brothers" and "The PJ's". The NAACP actually caused the cancellation of "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer", a sitcom of a black butler in the Lincoln White House (Lyons 9). All of this debate that has been brought up, even about shows with a main character that is African American, will most likely cause a producer to just steer clear of trying to create a successful "black based" show that would also not upset the NAACP.

 

It looks as if some small things might begin to change. Donald Jackson is the President of Central City Productions in Chicago, and he has a plan that will hopefully change the course that the networks have been following. His plan is to begin Black Family Entertainment Television, which will be based on a variety of first run shows. Jackson stated that, "Our strategy is not to compete with BET, [but] it is to grow the market place."(Lyons 9).

 

Hopefully this will do something for the African American community, but there will be a lack of beliefs until it is done, and on the air. Something like this has only been done once before, and it will be interesting to see if it can be done, and be as successful again. The debate over whether or not there is enough television shows based on African Americans will never end. There will always be something to complain about, and there will always be a flaw in the system. But it doesn't seem like conditions are going to get worse. Networks are aware that there should be more African Americans on television, and when they see the few shows that are on the air now become successful, it will cause a domino affect. It all comes down to the money, and networks are going to go after whatever makes them that.

 

 

Works Cited

Hall, L., Schneider, M., McConville, J. "Racism or Ratings". Electronic Media. February 1999,

Vol. 18, Issue 5.

Lyons, D., "NAACP's War on Television". Christian Science Monitor. July 1999, Vol. 91,

Issue 170.

 


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