What happened to black family sitcoms on network TV?

Written by MCJStaff   // September 30, 2013   // 0 Comments

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast, Season 1 (Chris Cuffaio/NBC Universal)


There once was a story all about how his life got flipped, turned upside down, but scroll through current programming, and the Fresh Prince is merely a late night forget-me-not.

In the past, television networks featured a variety of dynamic, funny and emblematic African-American families on popular sitcoms.

The Huxtables, Coopers, Wayans, and Winslows, Martin and Moesha and their respective companies, entered living rooms around the country and demonstrated the prolific and multifarious character of American blackness.

From the wealthy to the middle class, nerdy to hip-hop cool, black sitcoms thrived in all their glory throughout the late 1980s and ’90s.

Nowadays, well, these familial faces are reruns, and the African-American family has primarily been segregated to cable channels like OWN and BET.

Meanwhile at least six new primetime comedies have been added to the network slate, all of which center on white families and barely even throw a black couple into the mix.

“I just saw a billboard for Sean Hayes’ new show, and it was like five white people, then there’s that one black person on the end smiling,” Loni Love, comedian and co-host of the daytime talk show The Real, tells theGrio. “We’re going back to that one black on the end. We’re being good. We’re shaking it up. We’re being diverse…There needs to be more than just one token.”

Networks shift focus back to white families

During her many years in the business, Love has traversed the Hollywood system from the sidelines to the full frame.

She’s watched the TV landscape evolve as urban channels like UPN, the WB and the CW folded or morphed into something new, leaving behind programming that brought many black comedians into the spotlight.

With the demise of such channels, black writers similarly dwindled and therein brought a problem for today’s market.

“It seems as if the major networks, they feel like the black sitcom isn’t getting the ratings,” Love comments. “When all of those networks left, a lot of the black writers left too…I had gotten my first deal with HBO. I couldn’t get one black female to write with me because they all wanted to try to get on a so-called white show. A lot of the black female writers at the time felt like if we went to a network, and it’s you and I, it’s going to be deemed a black show. Fast forward to 2013, now you have no black shows, and you have this lack of black families on television.”

From the ’80s to now, the changing field of television is particularly surprising considering the country finally put a black family in the White House.

Progression somehow got halted by an illusion that the world evened itself out.

This fall, the networks will introduce a long list of sitcoms, including The MillersThe GoldbergsTrophy WifeMomDads, and Surviving Jack.

If the titles reek of Caucasian, that’s because pretty much all the characters on the shows are white.

Considering there are no new or existing shows featuring black relationships, the contrast appears striking. Even Wikipedia includes the decline of the black sitcom in its citation for the genre, noting, “In the early 2010s, black sitcoms have faded away on broadcast/network television.”

What gives?

“This industry, it’s so tight,” Love observes. “There are maybe five or six executives that can sell a show. If you don’t get in with one of them, you’re not going to get your project in to be able to pitch. And then there are certain networks, you look at CBS, CBS hasn’t had a black sitcom since The Cosby Show. They say that we’re not their demographic. Then you have NBC, who has tried a couple of things but they’re faltering. And then ABC, I don’t know what ABC’s doing. They’re just like whatever. Fox, if you don’t know anybody right now, if you’re not in, you can’t get anything done.”

The repetitive cycle of Hollywood

Also unlike the past, Love says studios will no longer take risks on new talent.

“Even on SNL there hasn’t been a black woman since Maya Rudolph,” she explains. “It’s like they must think ain’t no black female out there funny.”

For Bob Sumner, producer of BET’s Comic View and co-creator of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, the process of developing talent takes time. He agrees with Love that studios don’t want to give it.

“You keep seeing the same guys you already know over and over,” he says. “There’s some great talent out here that nobody’s taking advantage of…Remember when every time you turned around there was a great ensemble movie like a Friday, or House Party or Boomerang? We don’t even get that anymore.”

Nor are there pastiche cultural series such as A Different WorldLiving Single and In Living Color.

Family-driven comedies have become focused more on trending ideologies like gay marriage or single parenting.

“Because of the success of Modern Family, now every show is focusing on gays, which is cool but it’s like everybody’s trying to follow the next,” says Sumner. “There’s so much going on where it’s like America is all tied into one. So it really needs to be more, not just African-American visibility, but as a whole, we need to see more than just the George Lopez show.”

Love echoes that sentiment, commenting, “I feel sorry mostly for the Asians.”

Without incubators shows, Sumner believes it’s harder to get network support for new comedians.

Back in the day, a lot of comics spawned their own programming after debuting on variety shows, such as Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Tracy Morgan and Mo’Nique, to name a few.

“There’s not really a platform,” he points out. “Kevin Hart isn’t new. Kevin Hart won a contest I had along with DeRay Davis and Mike Epps back in the mid-’90s, but everybody’s looking at these guys like they’re fresh off the block. Deon Cole has a show on TBS now; Deon’s been around forever.”

Looking inside the casting scene provides more insight.

David Hunter, an African-American actor based in Los Angeles, feels creating his own material has been the best way to break ground in Hollywood.

Hunter stars in a new sitcom pilot, Very Smart Brothas, a show about two twenty-something black guys based on a blog of the same name.

It was initially developed as a web series before early buzz led creators to gear it for television. It will premiere at New York Television Festival in October, where the aim is to be picked up via a less traditional approach.

“We felt like having the control in our hands,” Hunter remarks. “To be seen in a different light, you have to write the material yourself and you have to show people on your own.”

Specifically, Hunter learned about Hollywood expectations during one of his first auditions six years ago, when he performed a monologue in a British accent for casting directors.

“After my monologue, the casting director told me ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting that. I can really see you on a show like Prison Break,’” the actor recalls. “In my mind, I was like what about my British monologue says Prison Break? It was something I didn’t understand at the time, and something that stood out to me.”

The ‘Housewives’ create collateral damage

Hunter believes reality shows have altered the field of network comedy.

The success of series like Basketball Wives and Love & Hip Hop indicates to producers that this is the image of the black family America wants to see.

“Those shows are cheap to make, and they keep getting ratings for us,” he comments. “Why should we put a Fresh Prince out when you guys will keep watching this? Not to knock those individuals, but you think about real actors…Actors aren’t getting work because of those particular shows.”

Love adds, “The reason black reality shows are a success is because urban people want to see urban people. They do. They will see them in any type of form.”

A Shonda Rhimes for comedy?

From Love’s perspective, comedy needs a producer like Shonda Rhimes to champion African-American sitcoms in the way she’s diversified the dramatic field.

“That’s what’s not happening in comedy,” Love points out.

Further, while beneficial, it’s not enough for a black sitcom to be on smaller cable channels because the quality and scope don’t compare due to budget limitations.

Sumner says he’s working on a platform through his LAFF MOBB comedy venture, which will nurture new talent and hopefully steer networks in a fresh direction.

“I really, really think the opportunity for the African-American in a sitcom is available if people would just take a chance,” he believes.

Acknowledging the popularity of The Real, a talk show led solely by young, progressive women of color, Love says public demand is there, too.

“We have to show the networks that we are interesting and we are funny and we are marketable,” she says. “We’re not going to stop. We’re not going anywhere. I’m going to keep trying.”



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