Prime-time blackout

Where did all the major network shows about black families go?

“The only other black comedic character on TV is Cleveland,” veteran TV producer Don Reo told the Kansas City Star, “and he’s a cartoon who’s voiced by a white guy.” Reo was trying to explain why his new show, Brothers, deserved to succeed: because of all the comedies premiered on the major U.S. networks this season, it was one of only two about an African-American family; the other one, The Cleveland Show, is a Family Guy spinoff about the show’s token black character (voiced, as Reo notes, by a white writer-actor, Mike Henry). And since Brothers opened to terrible reviews and worse ratings, Cleveland will soon be the only major network show about a black family. Richard Dubin, a professor at Syracuse University who wrote for many such shows in the ’80s and ’90s, puts it bluntly: “There are no more black shows.”

This is happening, strangely enough, at a time when things are better than usual for African-American actors and characters in the movies: there’s Oscar buzz for Precious (which may make a star out of actress Gabourey Sidibe), the Jamie Foxx vehicle The Soloist, and Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus, while Tyler Perry has become one of America’s most successful film producers with hit movies like Diary of a Mad Black Woman. But even as the overwhelming majority of television people were voting for Barack Obama, they were making fewer TV shows with African-American leads.

That’s not something anyone would have predicted 25 years ago, when The Cosby Show premiered. That show not only saved the sitcom, it became the most popular television program in the world, demolishing the idea that African-American TV families were only for a niche audience; Dubin says that its success “opened up a greater sense of possibility for black shows.” Cosby paved the way for other successful star vehicles, from Fresh Prince of Bel Air (for Will Smith) to Family Matters (which turned the character of Urkel into the most beloved TV nerd of the ’90s) to the late Bernie Mac’s self-titled sitcom.

But things changed quickly: by the middle of this decade, African-American leads were mostly confined to the little-watched CW network. And over the last two years, that network cancelled all of those shows, including Chris Rock’s autobiographical comedy Everybody Hates Chris and two sitcoms about African-American women, Girlfriends and The Game. In Canada, the comedy Da Kink In My Hair is waiting to find out whether it will get a third-season pickup. Mara Brock Akil, who created Girlfriends and The Game, responded to their cancellation by writing that “somehow, because my characters were of colour, my shows don’t count as much.”

What happened to drive this kind of show out of TV so quickly? In a way, it’s the same thing that happened to other types of shows: networks decided they weren’t delivering the exact viewers they (or their advertisers) wanted. Networks used to have lots of comedies aimed at young viewers; now those shows are all on the Disney Channel. And cable channels like USA and TNT have picked up all the light dramas and mysteries that their network parents rejected. The same thing may have happened to shows with African-American characters; Julie Miller of speculated that the decision of the big networks to shut down production of African-American sitcoms—despite the huge success of Cosby, Fresh Prince and others—was “due to a focus group determining that the ‘trend’ had been exhausted.” Like kids’ shows and mysteries, these shows have migrated to niche cable channels with short seasons, like BET (Black Entertainment Television). Comedienne Sherri Shepherd, with her popularity on The View, is the kind of performer who might once have gotten her own network sitcom; instead, her new sitcom Sherri is on Lifetime, a cable channel aimed mostly at women.

The most popular African-American show on TV is TBS’s Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, the writer-producer’s throwback to the family comedies of the ’80s. (Earlier this year Perry unveiled another sitcom, an adaptation of his movie Meet the Browns.) But while his work in theatre and film is getting more ambitious—he’s one of the producers of Precious—on TV, he has been criticized for aiming at the lowest common denominator, with what Robert Bianco of USA Today called a “horrendous mish-mash of old jokes and ugly stereotypes.” All of this means that African-American shows have become what Cosby supposedly proved they weren’t: niche shows. And African-American writers are finding that there are fewer opportunities to create shows. “As the business contracts, and there are fewer black shows,” Dubin explains, “there are fewer black writers in this segregated system.” Akil is one of several producers who has already found that out; she wrote that she is still not taken seriously in Hollywood despite “my veteran experience, which includes running Girlfriends and The Game for two years at the same time.”

In this atmosphere, it’s little wonder that there’s a lot of nostalgia for the seemingly distant past of the ’80s and ’90s, when these shows were not only mainstream, but influencing the entire TV business. The cast of Sherri includes James Avery, from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Malcolm Jamal Warner, from The Cosby Show; it’s like a weekly tribute to an era of television that’s now gone. Wyatt Cenac, from The Daily Show, recently devoted a segment to a Cosby Show tribute (comparing President Obama to Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable), even displaying a copy of the complete Cosby DVD box. And The Cleveland Show is basically presented as a throwback to the black sitcom of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, from the Quincy Jones-style musical arrangements to the heartwarming lessons at the end of most episodes. Mike Henry described the show to In Style magazine as “a contemporary Cosby Show living in a world that Family Guy created.” Everybody seems to miss the days when Cliff Huxtable or Steve Urkel ruled over a mass audience.

The counter-argument to all this nostalgia is that there’s no great virtue in green-lighting African-American shows just for their own sake. Shows like Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons or even The Cosby Show were sometimes accused of ghettoizing black actors, separating them from other shows, creating a system where, as Dubin puts it, “black people work on black shows, and white people work on white shows.” But the collapse of the African-American show hasn’t led to greater diversity on the rest of the schedule. There’s only one African-American character on a long-running sitcom, Wanda Sykes’s wisecracking best friend on The New Adventures of Old Christine. Laurence Fishburne, who replaced William Petersen as the star of CSI, is the only black lead in a hit drama series. As Bill Carter wrote in the New York Times, black actors can get roles on ensemble dramas, but they don’t get to lead “a dramatic series spotlighting a single star” the way Hugh Laurie does on House or Simon Baker on The Mentalist. Things aren’t that much better on cable channels like HBO, where only David Simon (of The Wire and the upcoming New Orleans drama Treme) is committed to doing shows with African-American stars. Even sketch shows, where performers like Eddie Murphy and the Wayans Brothers became famous, are largely white. Saturday Night Live has only one black cast member.

But the biggest problem with the current situation may not even be the lack of diversity; it’s that TV isn’t taking advantage of the talents of great performers. Norman Lear’s shows helped bring the African-American sitcom into the mainstream in the 1970s, but they were mostly excuses to display the talent of comedians like Redd Foxx (Sanford and Son, a British all-white show adapted into an all-black U.S. show) and Jimmie Walker (whose “Dy-No-Mite!” made his character on Good Times as popular as the Fonz). And The Cosby Show and Everybody Hates Chris weren’t done for the sake of having black families on TV; they were done because Bill Cosby and Chris Rock wanted to do TV shows based on their own real-life families, just like Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld did shows loosely based on their own lives. The lack of these performers on television may not only be hurting the TV business, but the movie companies that are linked to the networks. Many of the top movie stars in the world today were originally sitcom stars: Will Smith and Jamie Foxx built their movie careers on the success of Fresh Prince and The Jamie Foxx Show. (Even Morgan Freeman starred in his own segments on The Electric Company, as “Easy Reader.”) The fewer African-American TV stars there are now, the fewer movie stars there may be in the future.

But for now, the future of African-American TV seems to be in the hands of Mike Henry, the white actor-producer who changed a line in the Cleveland Show theme song (“My happy black guy face”) because he was worried it would be insensitive. While Cleveland has been generally well-received, and Dubin says he’s “totally fine with Cleveland being voiced by a white actor,” it’s probably not going to herald a return of the black show to the networks. Henry told Written By magazine that he was qualified to star in a show about a black character even though “I have not lived the African-American experience,” because “I have a lot of friends of all races and I’m wanting to do right by this character and the African-American race.” That sums up the trajectory of the black show over the last 25 years: from Cosby, a show that did right by a great African-American performer, to Cleveland, a show where a white guy tries to do right by his African-American friends.