The Television Ghetto

In June 2001, the Screen Actors Guild released the African American Television Report, a study commissioned by SAG that provided an analysis of both the quantity and quality of African American representation on network television. Conducted over a five-week period in the fall of 1999, the study was authored by Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the UCLA Center for African American studies.

Hunt concluded that African American characters on television are largely "ghettoized" by three contributing factors: network placement (most African American-centered shows were limited to UPN and WB), time slot (shows featuring all-black casts aired on Monday and Friday nights only), and show type (blacks were more likely than any other racial group to appear in sitcoms).

The study's findings were widely published, and the resulting public criticism prompted the major networks to promise reform. So now, a year later, are those public discussions and corporate adjustments reflected in the networks' fall offerings? Comparing some of the conclusions of the SAG study with the fall lineup, it seems that not much has changed.

African American Television Report: African Americans are over-represented in prime time and are concentrated in sitcoms.

According to the study, while African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, black characters accounted for nearly 16 percent of the characters on network shows during prime time in 1999. This would, at first glance, seem to be a good thing. But in this case, quantity definitely does not equal quality.

"We compared the distribution of characters with the time they had onscreen and we saw these really troubling patterns with how African American characters were being used," Hunt said in an interview with PopPolitics.

"Most African American characters with the highest screen time were the ones who appeared in African American-oriented situation comedies, those same six or seven shows that accounted for almost half of all African American characters on TV, and happened to be on two networks, primarily UPN and WB, and on two nights a week, Monday and Friday. If you get rid of those two nights a week, then you cut away half of the characters and the lion's share of the characters who have meaningful roles. That's what we meant by ghettoization," Hunt said.

Looking at the fall network schedule, few adjustments have been made. African American characters are still highly concentrated in sitcoms, and the shows in which they appear are still limited to certain nights and networks, although the configurations have changed, as we'll see below.

AATR: African Americans are underrepresented on FOX and NBC.

Hunt and his research team noted that "less than 10 percent of characters appearing on FOX and about 11 percent of those on NBC were African American," and most of these characters weren't central to the programs' narratives.

A year later, NBC and FOX are doing slightly better when it comes to giving black characters more substantial roles. NBC's programming is still overwhelmingly white, but at least one of the network's fall sitcoms, Hidden Hills, will feature a black couple in its group of suburban characters. (Only the white couple, however, is pictured on the NBC site.)

FOX has kept the critical and popular favorite The Bernie Mac Show as part of its Wednesday night lineup and will add Cedric the Entertainer Presents..., a comedy variety show starring one of the Original Kings of Comedy, in the half-hour directly following Bernie Mac. It is also slated to introduce Wanda At Large, a midseason comedy about an African American TV morning news show correspondent. 

ABC appears to be in stasis, although My Wife and Kids, starring Damon Wayans, is returning. CBS is introducing Robbery Homicide Division, which includes two African American detectives among its main characters, and the heavily advertised new crime drama Hack, which features an African American detective, Marcellus Washington (Andre Braugher), who helps a white ex-cop, Mike Olshansky (David Morse), with his vigilante crimefighting. 

While Braugher's role will allow him a good deal of screen time, the role of a black sidekick is still all too familiar. As columnist Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn observed in a recent column, "[M]ost African-Americans can be found on the sidelines, either as helpmate to the white star ... or co-starring in an ensemble cast."

CBS's reality shows, meanwhile, have generally included token black contestants -- one black male, one black female on both Survivor and Big Brother. The new Survivor: Thailand is nothing if not consistent.

The WB (formerly one of the networks on which African American-oriented sitcoms were concentrated) is doing worse. The network will no longer broadcast The Hughleys, a sitcom featuring an all-black cast. In fact, it won't offer any programs featuring African American characters in lead roles, even though WB was once known for introducing programs like The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. 

Aside from ER repeats, the rest of WB's lineup -- from original dramatic series like Smallville and Gilmore Girls to syndicated broadcasts of familiar shows like Friends and The West Wing -- adds little diversity. 

AATR: Prime time scheduling remains largely segregated.

The SAG report noted that shows airing on Monday and Friday nights "accounted for more than half of all African American characters appearing in prime time."

The fall network schedule indicates that things have largely remained the same. UPN, for example, is airing all of its African American-oriented sitcoms sitcoms (The Parkers, One on One, Girlfriends and Half and Half) in a two-hour block on Monday nights. Those shows account for half of the network's primetime offerings (UPN only needs eight shows to fill three nights; Thursday is devoted to WWE Smackdown and Friday is movie night).

But is this concentration ideal for viewers? Not quite, according to Hunt.

"In a way, this [ghettoization] is creating this segregated television audience that works against this notion of living in an integrated society where everyone's sort of living together with one another and understanding and appreciating the diversity of what we have here," Hunt said.

"Instead, there's this assumption made by programmers and people who are putting these shows together that somehow we have to niche market to an individual group, and we can't come together and enjoy the same things," he added.

And in a move that's drawn criticism from viewers and from the shows' stars, ABC and FOX have placed their African American family sitcoms, My Wife and Kids and The Bernie Mac Show, respectively, in direct competition with each other -- at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. This programming decision forces viewers to choose between two critically acclaimed black sitcoms, or at least requires them to remember to set their VCR.

Getting out of the TV ghetto

In the SAG study, Hunt describes two types of programming that are relevant to this discussion: "resourceful" programming -- shows that manage to use a diverse cast and to do well; and "missed opportunity" -- shows that didn't even try to diversify.

"There are a lot of shows on TV that do well, are in the top 10, and have diverse casts, and we highlight those in our report," Hunt said. "The Practice was an example of a show that was highly rated in 1999 and had a very diverse cast and had the African American characters in important, lead roles in many episodes, where they were the hero or heroine of the episode and got a lot of screen time and the show did extremely well in the ratings."

"Lots of shows could do that, but they don't even try," Hunt continued. "Or they have this unspoken rule-of-thumb that says 'the more people of color we put on the show, the less marketable that show will be to the broader (i.e. white) audience, which I think is faulty logic, and there are plenty of counter-examples to disprove the assumption."

Indeed, shows like The Practice beg the question of why other dramas and comedies have not integrated African American characters into their own narratives. It's hard to understand why, for example, Joey and Chandler couldn't have at least one close black Friend as a series regular; or why, in cosmopolitan New York City, the ladies of Sex and the City rarely date African American men and have no African American girlfriends or coworkers; or why we don't see more complex African American characters on TV -- characters like Six Feet Under's Keith, a black, gay cop with some anger management issues, whose portrayal is one of the main reasons viewers tune into the show, or any one of several characters from The Wire.

Hunt notes that it requires more than just getting African American actors on screen at any given moment -- though that does matter. And it requires more than "creating shows for black people" and then relegating those shows to secondary networks. Achieving programming diversity is about creating characters and scenarios in which black characters are portrayed as more than the villain/gangsta or comic sidekick/helper or incidental neighbor. In other words, it's about creating representations that reflect, in some meaningful way, the culture at large.

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