Who Is Killing The African-American Sitcom?

With dozens of new sitcoms premiering on major networks this fall, only two center on African-American families. Both programs, Brothers and The Cleveland Show, were picked up by Fox, and The Cleveland Show is voiced by mostly white actors. So how can it be that in an era when our country's cultural balance is shifting faster than ever underneath the joint leadership of our first African-American president and American Idol's soul judge Randy Jackson, black sitcoms are rapidly approaching extinction? And more importantly, who is responsible for their demise?

There was a period after NBC premiered Sanford and Son in 1972 when networks, inspired by the program's ratings boon, hungrily sought out Norman Lear-produced series featuring an occasionally argumentative African-American patriarch. Thus, CBS's Good Times and The Jeffersons (which is still the longest running black sitcom) were born. The growing market for minority casts extended through the '80s and '90s, when networks continuously scrambled to cash in on the next stage of black sitcom evolution. NBC hit ratings gold again with A Different World, the culturally significant monolith Cosby Show which bridged color-sensitive audiences when it earned five seasons worth of number-one Nielsen ratings, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. ABC scored with Diff'rent Strokes and Family Matters; CBS bought Family Matters and developed Cosby. You get the picture.

At some point in the early '90s though, just as Fresh Prince was cresting in ratings, the three major networks shut down their black sitcom production trade. Maybe the abrupt stop was due to a focus group determining that the "trend" had been exhausted or just that the networks rode their plotlines into the airwave graves. Whichever the cause of death, Fox, the WB and UPN snatched up the carcasses and resuscitated them with fresh writers and talent over the late '90s and early '00s for notable hits like Living Single and The Bernie Mac Show.

Then in 2006, the genre hiccuped again when WB and UPN, the most supportive networks of African-American sitcoms, merged into the CW. After the CBS/Warner unit aired Everybody Hates Chris, the network's programming ran lily white (One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, Melrose Place and 90210) despite the successes of its more diverse parents.

Since The CW's homogenization, black sitcoms have mostly been exiled to the cable ghettos. BET airs the shows for its largely African-American audience, and TBS has discovered rich ratings with Tyler Perry's House of Payne. But what happens to the sitcoms when TBS runs out of gas with House of Payne and BET's declining viewership results in network disintegration, especially considering the increase in cost-efficient reality programming? The prognosis is simple: The African-American sitcom is the latest host for network parasites and will not have long before it is pronounced dead.



Comments

  • Shawn says:

    I could tolerate the situation better if they would put more black characters in what I call the "promo rolls" (i.e. the roles that when they do promo shorts or pictures these are the characters you see, like Mariska Hargitay on L&O SVU)and allow them to have backgrounds that don't involve single parent homes, drugs, gangs, or growing up broke. You want intelligent characters who are in leading roles and don't have to fall back on "color" jokes.
    That's what also makes it so hard to have good black-led dramas: the writers inevitably start going to discrimination situations, or drugs, or somebody from the "old neighborhood" doing wrong and bringing up a dark past. Please. Write shows like "The Closer" and just let the people be people.

  • Passerby says:

    Not Kimberly, so I don't know what she watches; I'm primarily a sf/f geek so my watching habits fall along those lines and not so much with non-speculative comedy and drama, but I've been getting into BBC shows lately, and I would agree with her assessment from what I've seen.
    Merlin has Angel Coulby as Guinevere, which I find refreshing and unexpected--usually Arthurian legend retellings are lily-white, but I've read some meta on how that is actually inaccurate and there was more diversity in England at that time than history likes to remember. The secondary/background cast is also quite diverse.
    Doctor Who (the 2005 revamp) generally has a very small recurring cast of two people at one time, the Doctor and a companion, and in season 3, Freema Agyeman co-stars as Martha Jones, making her essentially 50% of the cast.
    This is most of what I've seen of BBC's TV, but it gives me hope for the rest of their programming.

  • MARILYN says:

    Those shows like any other ran its course martin , parent hood, sister sister living single .Well the boondocks was a good show guess they forgot that one ?

  • Angela Williams says:

    Why can't we have Different world reunoin

  • lana says:

    Who made more of a fool of black people than Norman Lear? Those shows are completely racist.

  • I have several really small no budget sitcoms on my website - http://www.blackdimensionstv.com - they have good concepts, but could use real support for better production values.
    However, they're what many of us are asking for - positive, family oriented, entertaining black shows. Please check them out and support me (if only by watching the shows) in my efforts here: it helps not only me, but a number of actors & crew in our efforts to 'get noticed' in this cut-throat industry. Thanks!

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