Whatever Happened To These Shows?

Every Wednesday, the Johnson family enters millions of living rooms across America. Dad Andre brings the laughs with his stubborn-but-silly antics, which are often countered by his practical-yet-free-spirited wife Rainbow. Both are balancing successful careers while raising four kids, each with their own set of amusing and relatable problems. Black-ish is a monumental moment in television history: an inspirational, educational, and hilarious sitcom on a major network that shows a Black family being, well...normal, while also tackling issues like police brutality and the use of the n-word. Nielsen reports that Black households watch 37% more television than other demographics, and yet Black-ish is one of only three Black comedy sitcoms on television today — the others are NBC's The Carmichael Show, and Tyler Perry's For Better or Worse on OWN. (ABC's Uncle Buck was canceled this past summer after one season.) According to The New York Times, back in 1997, there were 15 prime-time Black comedies on television. Today there are three. What happened? The debut of the The Cosby Show in 1984, of course, was what eventually sparked a plethora of Black family sitcoms in the 1990s. After Cosby came A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Martin, Living Single, Sister Sister, Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, Smart Guy, and many more. Black families were no longer just seen on Cosby and the occasional '80s cop drama, but on multiple networks at multiple time slots experiencing love, heartbreak, teenage angst, and parenting obstacles — just plain living, like families of any color. "The '90s was a really great time for Black kids like me growing up to see men and women and kids who look like them," says comedian Phoebe Robinson, author of the upcoming book of essays You Can't Touch My Hair. "I think it’s always important to see yourself reflected in stories as a kid. For the current generation of trans kids, a show like Transparent is revolutionary for them, and Black-ish is fantastic. There should be a lot more shows like these."
The Black sitcom boom gained even more traction in 1995 with the birth of the United Paramount Network, a.k.a. UPN. The network would become home to more than 10 Black comedies like Moesha, All of Us, Girlfriends, One on One, and The Hughleys. The network's merger in 2005 with the WB (which had previously been home to The Wayans Brothers, The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Parent 'Hood) to form The CW network was a major contributing factor in the Black sitcom's downfall. Upon the launch of The CW (that's C for CBS, W for Warner Bros) in 2006, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves promised in a press release: "The CW is going to be a real competitor, a destination for young audiences, diverse audiences, and a real favorite with advertisers." Apparently that meant a network full of shows featuring mostly white casts. While a few UPN shows, like Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris, trickled over to The CW, by 2008, every show that had gotten its start on UPN had officially ended. After UPN closed up shop, One on One creator Eunetta Boone told Entertainment Weekly: "I wouldn’t say because of the merger that Black sitcoms are dead... But they’re definitely dormant." A full 10 years later, and Black sitcoms are still dormant. An entire decade has passed without any other networks making an effort to fill the hole left behind by the disappearance of family-friendly Black series.

Dr. Robin Coleman, a professor at the University of Michigan and author and expert in Black media and pop culture, says the rise and fall of comedies centered on Black characters isn't a new phenomenon; in fact, it's a familiar cycle in the world of entertainment.

The '90s was a really great time for Black kids like me growing up to see men and women and kids who look like them.

Phoebe Robinson
"In my research, I argue that pop culture's attention to Black life and culture through situational comedy is cyclical," she says. "It began with the minstrel era, then Beulah and Amos and Andy. Next we arrived at the late-'50s and the rise of the civil rights movement, where networks said, 'We don't know how to portray Black folks and what's going on in their political world right now, so we're going to remove them from TV altogether.' So in the '60s, for the most part, if you wanted to see Black people on television, you had to turn on the news." Coleman argues that, essentially, this created a cycle wherein every 10 years or so, Black culture would hit a peak on television, then drop off for another 10 years. The pendulum swung back toward Black culture again in the '70s with shows like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. The '80s? Mostly white, minus some cop drama roles here and there — until The Cosby Show became an unstoppable force toward the end of the decade. "In the '90s, executives wanted to capitalize on the young white audiences that were tuning into The Cosby Show," Coleman says. "They thought, Hey, let's get these young viewers with disposable income to tune in to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!" But more Black sitcoms weren't necessarily a good thing. Following a slew of smart Black series came a rollout of campy shows, like Eve and even Homeboys in Outer Space, that felt less like purposeful programming and more like cheap attempts at copying a successful advertising model. "It was more about quantity than quality in an effort for [networks] to cash in and make money," Coleman adds. "Of course, once the trend died down, they abandoned the Black shows, and it's been over a decade since we've seen anything like that."
The situation isn't completely dire for Black viewers in 2016, though. There are some rich, multifaceted series creating a more diverse TV landscape. Thursday nights on ABC are more reflective of the real world thanks to Shonda Rhimes. Dramas like OWN's Queen Sugar, Power on Starz, and dramedies like FX's Atlanta and Issa Rae's Insecure on HBO are finally offering up much-needed layered portrayals of minorities, while also providing more opportunities for brown actors. Actress, dancer, director, and producer Debbie Allen — who, after becoming a household name through Fame in the '80s, went on to direct and produce the '90s hit A Different World and direct episodes of everything from Fresh Prince to Scandal believes that series like these are proof that the question shouldn't be what happened to the Black sitcom, but what happened to the sitcom, period. "The world of television has changed, and reality TV and dramatic narratives have simply taken the place of the sitcom," says Allen, who now appears on Grey's Anatomy and serves as an executive producer of the Shonaland series. "Reality is cheaper to produce, and lately dramas are more successful with audiences. I think networks have just shifted the way they're spending their money, so the focus is no longer situational comedies." Still, while the rise of reality television has indeed changed entertainment, sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family continue to dominate ratings, as does Black-ish, and comedies representing other minority demographics — like Jane the Virgin and Fresh off the Boat — have popped up in the last few years. (The fact that it took so long for both Latino and Asian Americans to see their stories told on major network sitcoms is an entire different essay on its own.) And reruns of shows like The Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite often rank higher than reruns of current shows like Big Bang. Clearly, the sitcom isn't completely dead. And there's no denying that complex shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Power, and Empire have been crucial for bringing more brown faces to television — an especially commendable achievement considering how embarrassingly devoid of diversity the world of film is currently. In fact, maybe the '90s and early-aughts were just an anomaly, a magical era for Black comedies. Perhaps we're entering a new turn of the pop culture cycle, a time for smart, multidimensional Black-led series like Luke Cage, The Underground, and Greenleaf. But between all of these intense, nuanced dramas and entertaining reality shows, couldn't there still a place for uplifting, family-friendly, laugh-out-loud Black stories? After all, during a time when the country is facing far too many racial crises in the outside world, it feels more important now than ever for Americans to at least see uplifting portrayals of people of all colors in their living rooms. Until then, there's always Nick at Nite.

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