R&R People+Culture: Prime Time In Technicolor-Quality Programing and the Black Audience
I remember having a pretty stringent TV schedule when I was in elementary school. Monday nights were reserved for Blossom and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Tuesdays were for Full House, Thursdays were for Martin and New York Undercover, and Fridays were what I waited all week for...the TGIF line up on ABC. TGIF was pretty frustrating since they rotated the shows around so frequently that it got hard to "get into" a show. It's much like getting into a book, you've got to read at least the first 20 pages/watch the first 5 episodes to really pique interest.
When my family moved into the house where my parents live now, we left behind two sorely missed things: the cat (adopted by a nice family,PETA put your paint away) and the cable TV. I was in middle school by now and most of my favorite television mainstays were either canceled, moved to cable, or had their series finale. I've had fluctuating interest in a few TV shows since then and like every other black woman in America I became enamoured with the works of Mara Brock Akil, creator of Girlfriends and The Game, which moved from The CW to BET and starts a new season on January 11th. Girlfriends was cancelled abruptly without being given the dignity of a series finale. Now we'll never know if Joan got married or if Lynn ever got her life together.
I started to expect shows that I liked to not last past 3 or 4 seasons, especially if they starred black actors and actresses in lead roles. It seems as though engaging, quality sitcoms and dramas that feature brown faces in multi-faceted roles have been replaced by factory line produced reality shows (Bad Girls Club, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and too many dating shows to mention) that reinforce stereotypes that are The Birth Of A Nation-esque. Even though black (token) characters are more common in most newer shows, they seem to still pull characterisation cues from mammy (Community's Shirley and to some extend Grey's Anatomy's Miranda Bailey), sapphire/bitch (Desperate Housewives' Renee), and invisible (black girl from Gossip Girl) roles of old. Why can't there be a black female lead that is the beautiful, intelligent heroine? This is why it was extremely refreshing to read Patrice Peck's Can Blacks Bum Rush The Show?: Bringing Diversity to TV. Peck offers plenty solutions to solve colorless TV and charges a black audience to be more proactive about preserving the shows that showcase us rather than lamenting their absence once they're canceled, as will probably be the case for the recently canceled JJ Abrams suspense crime drama Undercovers (NBC), which starred a black married couple:
Nevertheless, one could argue that if black viewers had stormed their television sets every Wednesday night at eight and tuned in to the series, the number of viewers would have exponentially increased, ultimately resulting in a rating impressive enough to demand not only an order of more episodes but a new season all together. Because high ratings clearly indicate a profitable market, television executives, naive or not, would be hard pressed not to jump on the black lead bandwagon. Then, as the amount of shows targeted to black viewers would increase, so would the chance of those shows actually being good, not to mention successful.
Peck admits that while Undercovers was a novelty for Big 4 network TV, it had disappointing quality in key areas such as character development. Should we support subpar programming for the sake of seeing a few brown faces placed in treasured prime time slots or should we continue to demand shows with the depth and quality of some of the colorless shows while complaining of a lack of representation in the meantime? I guess it depends on the show. I'm not a big fan of police suspense shows in general, so when I first saw the trailers for Undercovers I knew I wouldn't watch and changing the race of the lead couple most likely wouldn't have made me a viewer. However I can say that just from knowing the premise of the show it was a far cry from the Tyler Perry ill written House Of Payne or the whole phase of shows that BET threw at us a few years ago that were just lazy black versions of popular shows that featured a predominantly white cast (Baldwin Hills is the black Laguna Beach, College Hill is the black Real World).
It's not that black people can't resonate with a show unless we see faces that look like ours in it but we all know the reaffirming power of seeing yourself presented positively in the media. We are tired of mentally adapting the stories that we are given to the realities (and fantasies) that are ignored by the television lineups of today. My solution? Give Mara Brock Akil her own channel. In the meantime though, we've got to stop supporting housewives that are far from being actual wives and start supporting shows that portray blacks as multi dimensional, complex, and above all, human.