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.