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Saturday, 1 June 2013

What Happened To Black Sitcoms On National U.S TV?

*Last edited June 1st 2013 

By Waiching 

Growing up in the 1990s and early 00s, I used to watch the likes of the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, The Steve Harvey Show, Hangin' With Mr Cooper, In The House, The Parkers on channel 4 and satellite channel, Trouble, as well as Living Single on You Tube as that series wasn't shown over here in the U.K.

Today, as well as those shows, I've also seen The Jeffersons, Good Times, What's Happening!!, A Different World, Diff'rent Strokes, The Jamie Foxx Show and The Cosby Show to even lesser known shows such as, Out All Night, Girlfriends for example. Nowadays, in the U.S these sitcoms can be found on Cable. In fact, there are virtually no- and I repeat NO current African American/Black sitcoms on any of the major national networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC.

I can't name one single Black sitcom series existing on either of those networks as of now. Nope, not one. 

Yes there is Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Meet The Browns, as well as Let's Stay Together, but they are on Cable - not national U.S TV.The Game had been resurrected a year ago and was given a new lease of life on BET after a 3 year run on the CW- which aired shows aimed at the 18-34 demographic.

But that is not enough; it doesn't go far enough to address the issue. Since Friends and Frasier went off the air in 2004, U.S sitcoms in general have since dwindled in production as there have been less and less of them on mainstream network TV with Reality and drama shows dominating the schedules. 

Aside from the reality shows, TV viewership between Black, White and Asian households in the U.S is divided: say for instance a show that has Black characters gets high viewing figures amongst Black audiences-, yet that same show gets lower viewing figures amongst White audiences. It happens- people have different tastes in shows, expectations, and for many Black folks they want to see people of their own ethnicity represented through those characters, as a way of saying 'yes we do exist in America and this is how we live our lives'. 

However, this wasn't necessarily the case when The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air aired on NBC during the 1980s and 90s. Both were also international hits, not just in their native U.S. but everywhere. Especially where I live in the U.K. 

The 90s was a great period for American sitcoms: both Black and White- it was like a TV movement and it allowed us to see situations and comedy coming together with fictional characters. American sitcoms also found their way to the U.K, thanks to Channel 4 and Sky channels, Paramount Comedy and teen channel, Trouble.

Black sitcoms were, in many respects, a TV sub-genre that presented to viewers love, respect and fun. And through these sitcom shows, they demonstrated that it was possible to come from and be from an minority group- and STILL be successful and happy without resorting to derogatory stereotypes and buffoonery that elicits the very stereotypes Black people have fought and challenged throughout the years. And of which they continue to do so to this day. 

Major Networks Do Not Care For Black Sitcoms 

Sadly today, sitcom shows with African American characters are seen as a chance not worth taking by major networks because they believe mainstream audiences aren't interested in them and won't watch them. Which is astounding, given how the Black sitcom has gone from The Jeffersons, Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel Air on national U.S T.V to Cable-fare such as The Game, Love That Girl and House of Payne. 

My theory on the 3 main causes for the lack of (black) sitcoms are, 1) Reality shows, 2) TV networks & industry itself and 3) the after effects and consequences of 9/11, which had an adverse effect on the entertainment business and changed everything. Of course, others would cite the merger between the UPN and WB (Warner Bros) that led to the creation of the CW,- although the truth is they managed to preserve the Black sitcom for a short while any way. 

Reality shows have given viewers the wrong impression regarding Black people and because of their presence on these shows, the community are upset over how they come across to others and rightly so, as it is not reflective of who they are and what they represent. Yet they are cheap to produce and require no actors whatsoever; henceforth, there are little or no opportunities created for actors or up and coming young talent to come through.  
As a result- and of which leads onto my second point, Cable is picking up the pieces mainstream network TV is failing to do themselves with Black sitcoms and to further galvanize its reputation. 

Some would argue they are producing African-American programming and serving the interests of the Black community, of whom want positive TV shows and want to see positive representations, - but I'd argue this is only at the expense of NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS's reluctance. BET, TV One are reacting towards Black viewers and their concerns, which is a good thing and thus, it makes NBC, Fox, ABC look bad, and rightly so I'd say because the only Black show or show that is on mainstream TV that has regular Black characters is Grey's Anatomy. But the characters on that series, including the Black characters are hardly what one would call exemplary role-models for Black people. I mean, they sleep with other doctors, have affairs, cheat on their partners. Grey's makes ER look like a saint. The main U.S TV networks and industry all seem to care for reality shows and drama shows. Black sitcoms and really good sitcoms these days do not exist in their eyes- sadly, they believe there isn't a market for them, anymore. 

Still, in spite of Cable showing more Black sitcoms on its channels, the quality of these Black sitcom shows are hardly in the same league as The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Jeffersons. In fact, they can NOT be compared to them because quite frankly, most of these current Black sitcoms on BET for example are not as funny and entertaining as their classic counterparts. I've watched some of these BET sitcoms and to me, they lack certain things: good writing, characters that we care about and humour that was existent in the previous Black sitcoms of the 70s, 80s and 90s. 

There isn't a better feeling than coming home after a hard day's work, switching on the TV and watching something that puts a smile on your face and takes your mind off from all the seriousness that is going on right now. Sitcoms do that, which is why I enjoy watching them. Sitcoms and old school cartoons are my 2 favourite types of TV shows.

Yet according to NBC, Fox, CBS etc, their idea is 'screw sitcoms, let's flood the network with these (trashy) reality shows and some (boring-ass) dramas'. They have taken the fun out of entertainment these days, and the same applies to TV in Britain where reality shows are just as prominent as they are in America.  

They say things were better in the old days,- and they were.

Finally, the last theory I cite for the lack of Black sitcoms is the events and after affects that occurred as a consequence of 9/11. In fact, since 9/11 Western popular culture and entertainment as a whole, has resorted to producers, directors, creators, writers to take the safe route. 9/11 was an horrific event, but is there a need for creators and TV makers to take everything so seriously and thus, bore people with the same stuff and dumb down standards too in TV, as well as movies, music and video games too? 

The lack of variety in TV programming now is shocking really; I mean in the 80s and 90s, we had sitcoms, dramas, quiz shows, variety shows, sketch shows, cartoons everything. today and the 00s, it's reality shows and dramas.

Things Need To Change

It is high time for Hollywood and the U.S TV industry to wake up and face facts, and to understand that not everyone wants to watch reality shows, rather they want choice and diversity on TV.

Diversity in terms of the types of TV shows available on screen, and diversity in regards to catering to the needs of and taking into consideration the interests of minority groups, of whom feel mainstream media is neglecting and/or ignoring them. America is a culturally diverse and enriched nation, so why not reflect that through positive TV programming that shows this? 

Some will say that because comedy has become more subjective than before and the humour in comedy and sitcoms is subjective, they can be harder to understand than drama because in sitcoms one has to get the 'jokes' in order to understand what is going on. Which is correct, given with drama, when you watch a situation unfold, it is there; you don't have to necessarily ponder about what makes it- as in the genre- to work or why it works. 

But regardless, the bottom line is the Black sitcom right now is not thriving; it is not progressing forward as it should do and it is not getting the exposure it deserves- well not on mainstream networks that is. And I'm a little surprised that Black actors and celebrities in the TV world, as highly respected as Bill Cosby and Debbie Allen, who directed 'A Different World', have not spoken out directly about this issue, because it is a huge concern for the TV industry in the States. It ought to be. 

Well actually, come to think of it, Bill Cosby did make his feelings known on this. He said:
"I've seen this movie before," Bill Cosby said in a recent interview. "How is it that there are people of color who are CEOs of companies, that are presidents of universities, but there is no reflection of that on the networks? It is arrogance and it is narcissism. Even the commercials have more black people than the programs." 

He has a point. Seems to me and other people that these national 'networks' only want minority characters to be heard of but not seen. Of course I know Grey's Anatomy has its share of minority characters in the past and recently with Dr Catherine Avery (played by Debbie Allen), but that is not a sitcom, well a Black sitcom. It is a drama series and a show I don't tune into, nor am I a fan of. Even though it does have a large Black viewership. 
Still doesn't make sense however as to why ABC would support a drama series that is a hit with Black audiences- yet of whom would NOT commission, produce a Black multi -cam, half-hour sitcom. Like they have done with 'Hangin' With Mr Cooper' during the 90s. 

Whenever I look at the U.S TV listings on websites of the 4 main networks online, it is pretty sad to see how little variety in shows there are. But the same can be said for our TV schedules in Britain.   

I wouldn't say the Black sitcom is completely dead though because as long as BET and other Cable networks continue to air them, it will still be around. Despite how uninteresting many of them are. However, to declare that there is a diverse range of TV shows on national TV by national TV networks including situation comedies, is a huge understatement. And there needs to be more Black sitcoms that last longer than just 1, 3, 4 seasons because during the last decade, for the exception of Girlfriends, there haven't been many Black sitcoms lasting very long on air.  

It's quite tragic that a country such as the United States of America currently has a Black president leading the nation- yet when it comes to Black sitcoms on national TV, there have all but disappeared to Cable. 

Last I read the last African-American/ Black sitcom that aired on a major TV network in the U.S was 6 years ago. 6 years. You're telling me that from 2006 to 2012, NBC and co did nothing and it was left up to the WB and UPN to do all the work instead?.... This isn't good. At all. 

Will NBC, Fox, CBS air more quality Black sitcoms like they did in the 70s - 90s? I'd love to see it happen but in this current time, with reality shows and dramas being the main shows, it's sad to see the sitcom genre being dumbed down. I really do not relate to or like any of today's sitcoms, nor its characters, be it on Cable and national networks, Black and White. How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The Game, Modern Family, Let's Stay Together and any of Tyler Perry's hits. I never really cared for them. 

With 90s sitcoms in particular, many had interesting characters, good humour and story lines as well as good casting and chemistry that I literately fell for and enjoyed. There is hardly any of that in today's sitcoms. 

If, come the next 10 or 15 years there is at least not one successful Black sitcom on NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox on air, then one can say the Black sitcom is in deep trouble. 

And that just wouldn't bode well for its future. 

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