The Death of the Black Sitcom: "Black-Ish" is Not Enough

by Kenya Carlton

Black sitcoms were huge between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. I mean, who doesn’t know all the lyrics to the catchy theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Indeed, there was a little bit of everything to pick from. Before Sex and The City with Carrie Bradshaw, besties united over Living Single. A Different World showed the college experience of young Black adults, making the audience want to move into the dorms with Whitley and Jaleesa… but not necessarily in the same room.

The boom of fresh comedies made everyone believe the success of the black sitcom would never end. We believed there would be an In Living Color or Family Matters around every corner. However, that long list has shortened to a handful of comedies that are sprinkled throughout cable networks.

Although we have successful drama series like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, if you want lighter fodder, the shows that reign supreme in black households are reality TV. But Nene and Cynthia, from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, will never be the homies like Pam and Gina. So why did we allow these poorly scripted versions of a sitcom to take over? Did we have a choice? Could we have stopped this current train, or was it all for the corporate dollar? In an April interview with Arsenio Hall, Jimmy Walker stated that we, black people, complain too much. Since we are so hard to please, the studios have given up trying.

According to the Neilsen ratings, black households watch 37% more television than any other race, so why aren’t we taken into consideration during the fall premiere season? Out of ten sitcoms that debuted in the 2014 fall television line-up, only one consisted of an all African American cast. Unlike more than half of the short-form comedy shows on that list, Black-ish—a sitcom that airs on ABC—was actually picked up for another season.

“If we're not at the table, it is hard for us to have a ‘face’ on the sitcoms and in other types of TV shows,” said Shonell Bacon, an author, editor, and instructor of mass communication I recently spoke with on the status of the Black sitcom in the current entertainment industry. The lack of behind the scenes presence is one issue, but this couldn’t be our sole reason for under representation in this entertainment format.

Some entertainment insiders blame reality television for the decline in good, quality shows. Petty arguments that could easily be resolved are stretched over a multi-episode arc. “A lot of reality TV, for me, is that accident on the highway. It's a mess, but we are so fascinated with others' lives, and especially the drama of others' lives,” said Bacon.

However, the low cost of reality production can easily be seen as the culprit, according to Scott Manville, Founder and President of the TV Writers Vault. "An episode for a scripted series can be anywhere between a half-million and millions of dollars depending on the network and content involved," Manville says. "Reality TV is much more manageable in terms of getting content produced and on the air, with much less risk. But the process reflects that as well. It’s much easier to sell a reality TV show," he told the South Source in a 2013 interview.

Where most of us grew up on entertainment centered around family values, many of our children are not getting that same fundamental luxury. The general take away of this programming is the stereotype that black women are angry, drink-throwing, weave-pulling harpies. Only once did we, as the viewer, witness a beat down on The Cosby Show… and that’s when Vanessa stole Denise’s sweater, remember?

Sure, a few of reality television’s more heinous shows were stopped dead in their tracks due to social media activism—like Shawty Lo’s All My Babies’ Mamas, which is about the rapper’s 11 kids and 10 baby mamas. Also, VH1’s soon-to-be axed Sorority Sisters will eventually join that list after its abysmally low ratings. How do we get our sitcoms back? Is there a chance that we can actually watch black women cry, talk, and share their problems on screen without a major throwdown?

“What I expect to see in the TV industry is exactly what we're seeing now but in more numbers: media convergence and the ability for creative types to use various media platforms to develop shows …YouTube, of course that's an option, and there are also streaming services, such as HULU and Netflix, that are in the TV business now. And we also have the likes of Amazon,” Bacon said.

The Sony hacking scandal of 2014 uncovered an interesting email from a producer who made her feelings known about the monetary shortcoming of using black leads in films, so how could a black television series stand a chance? Should we, as one of the leading demographics for advertising revenue, continue to accept this type of treatment from the entertainment industry? According to Bacon, we need to be part of the movement instead of standing on the sidelines. “The TV landscape is changing and will continue to change. To see more black sitcoms and more diverse shows of all genres, we need to be a part of that change.”

Kenya Carlton is the author of the Sweet as Sin series and Remember This.

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