Today, the only way some Americans get insight into what life is like for a black family is by watching snippets of the Obamas on the nightly news. No English-language network program centers around a black family — or an Asian or Hispanic family either — except Fox’s “The Cleveland Show.” And that’s animated.
I never thought that I’d have to search so hard on television to find a family that looks like the one I grew up in. My TV experience began in the age in which “The Cosby Show” was the king of television viewing among black and white families alike. Twenty years later, after the Huxtables went off the air, not one show on any of the major networks can even remotely challenge its place as the standard of black family life.
Instead of a real look at black culture, Hispanic culture or any specific culture, we get “uniculture.” That’s how Felicia Henderson, creator of the Showtime series “Soul Food” and a newly minted executive producer of a BET family sitcom “Reed Between the Lines,” describes much of our current television universe. Henderson, who has served as a writer and producer for shows such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Gossip Girl” and “Fringe,” says the major networks often show diverse casts, but not true cultural differences. “I celebrate multicultural casting, but my concern is that these shows and these characters are only physically multicultural, physically multiethnic,” she says.
Network TV does feature sitcoms and dramas that attempt to talk about race and difference. For better or worse, some even make it a punch line, with race and ethnicity exaggerated for comic effect. We also see shows with black female leads, ABC’s “Scandal” and NBC’s upcoming drama “Infamous,” along with mixed-race casts. But the worlds they pretend to inhabit are not ones in which anyone really lives. It’s one TV cultural universe, with no room for ethnic difference, even among ethnic characters.
For that difference, you need to go to cable. That’s where black television shows that highlight the black experience can be found, separated from the rest of the viewing public. Magic Johnson just launched a new network, called Aspire, that will cater to black families. Part of this reflects how television is increasingly being created for and consumed by niche markets. Black channels for black viewers. Food Networks for cupcake lovers. Sports channels for football fanatics. Niche cable channels for the niche way we live.
Film historian Don Bogle says that although blacks and other groups participate in an integrated workforce, when we come home, we really “live in two different cultures.” That’s not an inherently bad thing, he says, but it would be good if network television attempted to reflect those differences rather than run away from them. Without these depictions, “African American culture and life becomes invisible for the mainstream audience.”
The most recent census figures show that although the number of interracial relationships and families is rising, most of us still live in communities with people who look like us. In 2010, William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, found that the average white person lives in an area that is 79 percent white; the average black person lives in an area that is 46 percent black; and that 45 percent of Hispanics live in Hispanic neighborhoods. The pattern extends socially as well, with a Pew Research Center study finding that 86 percent of Americans have a friend from another race. But when you start to look at groups of people — that is, more than one friend from another race — the numbers drop off.
This division can extend to television viewing as well. Looking at Nielsen ratings during the May “sweeps” season for this year, total audience viewership and black viewing habits for the traditional broadcast networks aren’t that different, with variety shows such as “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol” dominating much of the ratings. Yet one disparity stands out: The No. 1 show for black households the week of May 13 was “Scandal,” starring African American actress Kerry Washington. It didn’t even register in the top 25 for the general viewing population. In 1985, the first year “The Cosby Show” catapulted to the top of the charts, it was the number one show for black and white households.
The networks’ affinity for multicultural, integrated casting is highly progressive and regressive at once. Much of this trend can be attributed to Shonda Rhimes, the hugely successful African American television producer who created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” among other shows. Rhimes’s affinity for casting characters, not color, seems to have upped the number of minorities we see as leads on network programming.
I love these shows and Rhimes’s new model for addressing diversity. I don’t always need black characters to be attached to identity and saddled with talking about race all the time. But I still want another “Cosby Show,” made for today. A program that depicts integrated aspects of American life, but also shows what’s unique to black family life.
By airing “The Cosby Show” on a major network in a prime-time slot, the networks told us that this was an important piece of American culture and that the lives of these people mattered. The show depicted and embraced difference, whether through Cliff’s love of sweatshirts from black colleges, Theo’s anti-apartheid poster, or the constant mentions of black artists. But racial identity didn’t consume the characters. “The Cosby Show” sent the message that although culture and history were an important part of this black family, they didn’t define it.
The show garnered 30 million viewers at its peak and spawned a range of black family sitcoms on the major networks that were successful among diverse audiences, including “A Different World,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Matters.”
Yet after the rise in the 1980s to its many imitations in the 1990s and early 2000s, black-themed programs on the major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — declined. Most aired on starter networks such as UPN or the WB, before being shipped off to cable.
The Cosby kids themselves illustrate this point. Malcolm Jamal Warner (Theo), who has a recurring role in NBC’s “Community” and starred in UPN’s “Malcolm and Eddie” in the 1990s, has finally found a leading role on BET. Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy), Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa) and Raven-Symone (Olivia), the most commercially successful by far, haven’t found overwhelming success at the major networks. That may change for Bledsoe, who will be back on network television this fall in NBC’s “Guys With Kids,” as part of a multiracial ensemble. Bledsoe and co-star Anthony Anderson said that they are both looking forward to filling the void and portraying a black family on network TV.
Part of the problem, critics say, is that minorities need more creative control behind the scenes. That’s why the launch of Johnson’s Aspire, which joins a handful of black-centered television stations such as BET, TV ONE and Bounce, is exciting. The channel is the direct result of an agreement to serve underrepresented audiences when Comcast purchased a majority stake in NBC Universal last year. Three other minority-owned cable stations that focus on black and Hispanic-themed programming are set to debut in the upcoming months.
British journalist David Frost once said, “Television enables you to be entertained in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home.” Even though it was fiction, “Cosby” was the first time that many Americans saw what a certain type of black household looked like, heard how blacks kids spoke to one another and saw the similarities rather than the differences in their own home life.
That’s why, in addition to BET and Aspire, we need Cosby 2012 on a major television network.
How great would be it be to see an updated “Cosby Show” type that showed the joys and annoyances of black family life in the new millennium?
A show set in the suburbs of Atlanta — the new mecca of the black middle class — that was infused with hip-hop and R&B the way jazz permeated Cliff Huxtable’s world. We could watch as the family dealt with the reelection campaign of the first black president. Or observe how a black family would deal with sexuality, interracial relationships, single parenthood, living with an aging relative — or a daughter who aspired to be a Kardashian. Not that it would be all heavy issues. “The Cosby Show” certainly wasn’t. Grandpa could learn to Tweet.
We don’t live in a unicultural world, and network television should reflect that. You shouldn’t have to flip to triple-digit channels to see that brown dads can be just as goofy as white ones.