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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/7/2006

I don’t know how much you keep up with this sort of thing, but for the past few weeks the TV networks have been presenting their upfronts, showing advertisers what’s going to be on television next year. One of those networks, the new amalgamation of UPN and the WB, dubbed CW, finally rolled out its roster for the coming year and a large segment of black America breathed a sigh of relief. This was not so much because something unexpected happened. In fact, it was just the opposite: Of the two networks’ shows that feature mostly African-American casts, half were canceled. But Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, and All of Us made the cut.

The only reason I care is, ironically, because I don’t really care about the shows that got canceled.

A little background is probably in order. When Fox first came on the air back in 1986, the nascent network put counterprogramming into practice. While the Big Three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—focused on large demographic groups that have always been traditionally served and courted, Fox went with programming designed to appeal to groups often left out—most especially black folks. Thus Fox was the home of such programs as Martin, In Living Color, New York Undercover, Roc, and Living Single. Not since the ’70s were there so many television shows featuring black actors on the air at the same time. Although the quality varied, along with the level of criticism aimed at each show, it’s fair to say that a large percentage, if not most, of the black community was happy there was so large an African-American presence on television.

Of course, if you’ve looked at Fox lately, you know this all changed. As Fox got on its feet, the network expanded its programming to pull in a “broader” audience. This broad audience—viewers of your Beverly Hills 90210s, your Melrose Places, and your 21 Jump Streets—meant a younger, whiter audience. One by one, the shows featuring African-American casts faded away. Suffice it to say that this was a bitter pill for many in the black community to swallow. Feeling used and disposed of when they weren’t needed any longer, some sought action. The first online movement I remember was a petition that was distributed in an attempt to save Living Single back in 1998—to no avail.

When both the WB and UPN launched, they both followed the same programming strategy and trajectory as Fox. Both networks originally featured many shows with African-American casts, but slowly but surely, programs featuring casts of color were phased out. When the merging of the two networks was announced earlier this year, it didn’t take a mind reader to figure out what shows were probably going to get canceled to fit the new streamlined schedule. Sure enough, the cancellations everyone thought would occur did.

I guess the cancellations sort of bother me, but . . . I didn’t watch any of the canned shows. Honestly, they just weren’t that good. But their mediocrity is worth noting. Depictions of African-Americans, particularly comedic ones, are often borderline offensive at best. The later seasons of Martin are as despicable and stereotypical as most blackface, and I defy someone to differentiate the eye-bucking and mugging of The Parkers’ Countess Vaughn from Amos ’n’ Andy. I can’t say much about the recently canceled Half and Half or Eve. They weren’t offensive—I just didn’t watch them, much like According to Jim or Two and a Half Men.

It’s unfortunate that black shows don’t get the type of support that so many lackluster prime-time comedies do. There’s just so much pressure to support each and every thing . . . or to rage against it. It seems like popular black art only inspires one or the other of the extremes. Sometimes, I want to hear about something black and have the luxury to just ignore it. Thankfully, things like One on One serve that purpose in my life.

And there was nothing wrong with that. Y’know, I’ve been watching old episodes of What’s Happening!!, and, frankly, they’re just not that good. Again, nothing really wrong with them, but there’s nothing transcendent about anything that happened on that show like on other “relevant” shows from the same period. Still, I find something comforting about that. Here was a black sitcom that didn’t take any type of historical stand, and I can turn it on and just sort of veg out. It’s a shame that this type of things seems to be gone forever. Well, until the next upstart TV network comes along.

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