Tuesday, 18 November 2014

UPN: Why For All Its Faults, It Was Still A Catalyst For Promoting Black Sitcoms


Over a decade ago, the Black or African-American sitcom were regular fixtures thriving on US television, both on national and cable television. 

Say what you want about UPN, which stands for United Paramount Network: I know I for one didn't like all of the Black sitcoms that aired and which I saw on You Tube and Trouble channel in the UK. But they gave the Black sitcom another opportunity to shine at a time when NBC, Fox etc gave up on them. 

The UPN network aired programming for Black audiences during a period in the mid 1990s to early 2000s when shows aimed at African American audiences started waning and NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC stopped caring. 

When Family Matters, Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Wayans Bros to name came to an end, the major American television networks seeked to marginalise not just Black viewers, but fans of African-American sitcoms altogether by refusing to a) accept scripts from writers and creators of Black sitcoms and b) reducing predominately Black casting on its shows. UPN, as well as the WB picked up shows the major networks wouldn't touch with a barge-pole, or of which they cancelled. 

When the LL Cool J - led show 'In The House' was cancelled by NBC after 2 seasons, it was picked up by the UPN, who aired the remaining 3 seasons. And yet I liked the show when it was on NBC because it was a good show then, and when it moved to UPN, it wasn't.

We didn't have UPN or NBC, Fox or any of those networks in the 1990s when those shows aired in the UK; for that we had a channel called 'Trouble'

The channel consisted mostly of overseas shows such as sitcoms. They included All of Us, The Cosby Show, Cuts, Diff'rent Strokes, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Hangin' With Mr Cooper, My Wife and Kids, In The House, The Parkers and The Steve Harvey Show. 

That was my first real taste of African American sitcoms across the pond. I used to switch on Trouble after school, and tune into those shows. It was amazing. 

Yet in spite of their efforts, these sitcoms that aired on cable networks, such as UPN, were slated and looked down upon and weren't seen in the same league as the Black sitcoms on NBC, CBS and Fox such as The Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. 

Before BET, there was UPN: it was in many regards one of the first Black television channels in America. Looking at the sitcoms that aired on UPN via the Wikipedia page, out of those listed I only enjoyed 3 of them: Girlfriends, Moesha and The Parkers. The rest were not very appealing to me. 

The UPN didn't have such huge wads of money for shows to compete against the high quality of Black sitcoms on the 4 big networks, NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC. 

Black viewers in America love their Black sitcoms, but the truth remains in TV land: sitcom shows with predominately Black casts and no or rarely any token White characters to be seen, do not sustain momentum on national TV today (unfortunately). 

Black-Ish's appeal is down to the success and interest in other single camera sitcoms like Modern Family, The Middle and The Goldbergs, which I don't watch. In fact, I don't watch single camera sitcoms these days. Black-ish is a continuation of the single- cam sitcom boom of the US TV industry, whilst the traditional multi-cam sitcom is unfortunately being phased out. 

The recent success of ABC's Black-ish may be all fine and dandy so far, but the real test lies on a) the longevity of this series, & whether or not it lasts more than 3 or 4 seasons, b) the quality of the writing improves and that as a sitcom, it remains funnier and c) if network executives on major US TV re-examine their approach towards African American sitcoms -, and that the way forward for this genre to flourish and make progress, is to air multi-cam sitcoms with a laughter track. 

Not single-camera sitcoms that have no laughter track. I tend to find those types of sitcom shows difficult to get used to as a viewer. 

Back to the topic, by 2006 the UPN and WB networks were under-performing and its ratings for its shows began to tank. With that in mind, both networks got together and formed the CW. The 2 original shows that came from that stable were Everybody Hates Chris and Girlfriends. And they were very good sitcoms. 

Like I said earlier, I didn't enjoy many of UPN's Black sitcoms compared to the Major networks, but compared to say BET, UPN's counterparts they were (and arguably still are) better than BET's. 'Love That Girl', Reed Between The Lines & Tyler Perry's shows just don't do it for me. And not forgetting, the UPN with the WB were filling a void which is now taken up by TV One, which airs reruns of African American sitcoms of the 1970s-90s. 

The UPN wasn't perfect by any means - Did the UPN's existence resulted in an elimination of African American sitcoms on mainstream TV? Yes. and yet did the UPN rescue the African American sitcom which at the time, was being phased out by the 4 major networks? Again yes. 

We keep turning to and lauding The Cosby Show and A Different World as the bench markers for excellence in Black sitcoms, because those shows made a real impact not just on US television but global television too. But at the same time, by dismissing Black sitcoms prior to the The Cosby Show and A Different World (The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, 227, That's My Mama, What's Happening!!) and after it (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, Living Single, The Jamie Foxx Show, Family Matters, The Wayans Bros, Girlfriends) if you are going to support the Black sitcom and are a fan of these shows, you need to be supporting all those shows as well.

Not just The Cosby Show and A Different World. Because those shows resonated with many people. The Jeffersons may have been wild and outlandish with the frequent use of the 'N' word, Good Times may have portrayed Blacks as being poor, living in slums, for pushing social issues to the forefront such as drugs and child abuse. What's Happening!! was the first teen Black sitcom featuring a character named Raj/Roger trying to make ends meet, who has a younger sister and a single parent. But those sitcoms each offered a different take of Black America; way before Bill Cosby's arrivals in a Black upper-middle class family and a historically Black college. 

One may argue those depictions of Black people were negative and that A Different World and The Cosby Show offered an alternative take on African American Life and success. Some would say in the case of the latter show, it wasn't realistic. I tend to differ slightly, but I would add that ADW and The Cosby Show was more about showing that Blacks can be smart, intelligent and assimilate into so-called White American culture and become successful. 

The UPN sitcoms reflected the Black experience in more ways than one. However, on the flip-side, the network struggled a lot because many of those sitcoms, for the exception of Girlfriends, were not big hits (and by big i'm talking about millions of viewers) - ratings-wise, but critically speaking, they were panned as well. And thus, these weren't well-received by viewers. 

In hindsight, they were not of the same quality as The Cosby Show, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and other NBC, Fox's offerings. But at least UPN filled the void left by the big four networks in that department. 

And for that, I give them credit. 




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