Things change only to remain the same. Is that what’s taking place today in the world of Network TV?
As I reported in an earlier article about the Network Spring Pilot season I noted that because of the success of Fox’s “Empire” there are a significant number of Black show pilots on the horizon which will translate into more jobs in front of and behind the camera if they are successful enough to get picked up. So, there is a definite reason to be excited. However, Black performers and behind the scene talent have been down this road before.
In the 1990’s, like most Black Americans, I was in TV heaven. There were so many Black shows to choose from, that I thought it would never end. From cool cop dramas like Fox’s “New York Undercover” to the savvy sisters in “Living Single,” we seemed to be everywhere.
The ‘American Experience’ finally began to reflect the lives and lifestyles of Black Americans. I owe it to the 1977 groundbreaking miniseries “Roots.” It gave Blacks a sense of history, and gave Whites a history lesson. And it broke viewing records and racial barriers according to research reports.
The 70’s gave us; “Benson,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “Room 222.” and “The Jeffersons.” And the 80’s ushered in the “Cosby Show.”
In the ‘80’s the networks had a good thing with Blacks as well as Whites enjoying the same programming. Advertisers didn’t have to pick and choose their preferred audiences i.e. Black dollars vs. White dollars, advertisers simply followed the money.
According to a Network History report, American audiences in the economically booming 1980s had more choices than ever before. Cable expansion continued as The History Channel, Fox News Channel, and TV Land debuted. The upstart networks of Fox and the WB seriously challenged the Big Three. The competition became intense for quality programs. Networks fought for pieces of the shrinking market share.
Writer Gene Demby in his 2015 article, “This Isn’t the First Time Network TV Discovered Black People” wrote—While the then-Big Three had a handful of shows with Black casts in the mid-1990s like “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” it was the upstart networks like Fox and later UPN and the WB that seriously doubled down on Black viewers in a bid to become commercially viable as quickly as possible. The result was a kind of alternate TV universe where you could find Black folks on-screen seemingly every night of the week.”
The Black TV boom was orchestrated by Fox, the WB and UPN. We used to refer to UPN as the “United Plantation Network,” their promos regularly boasted as “the most watched shows in Black households.” The impressive list of shows included “Moesha” (1996-2001), “The Parkers” (1997-2004), “Malcolm & Eddie” (1996 – 2000), to “In the House” (1996 – 1998), and “Clueless” (1997-1999). However, when UPN and the WB merged in 1996, the consolidation killed off most of UPN’s offerings. These are the survivors.
Fox on the other hand was going all out in its programming. Fox gave us “New York Undercover.” It was hard core and very realistic. The show hit the air with a hip-hop flavor, the hottest rappers on the charts and real-life gritty situations familiar to inner-city Blacks featured life as it was, it was hot. To follow is a sampling of Black shows on Fox in the ‘90s: “413 Hope St.” (1997-98), “New York Undercover” (1994-98), “South Central” (1994), “In Living Color” (1990-1994), “Living Single” (1993-98), “Martin” (1992-97), “Roc” (1991-94), “The Sinbad Show” (1993-94), “Townsend Television” (1993).
When networks like Fox, UPN and the WB started wooing Black viewers in the 1990s, the prime-time audience began to split.
In May of 1996, an article appeared in the Baltimore Sun by Sun Television Critic David Zurawik, “Races Diverging in Viewing Habits.” Television Study finds little correlation between Blacks’ and Whites’ favorite shows.
The study reported, of the Top 20 shows in Black households, eight were from Fox—a network that has reached out to Black viewers. But among White and all other households, Fox has no shows in the Top 20.
“New York Undercover,” was the favorite prime-time show among Black viewers, but ranked 122nd with Whites. And, while the Fox sitcoms “Living Single” and “The Crew” ranked second and third with Black viewers, they finished in a tie for 124th with Whites.
While television is often celebrated for bringing Americans together in a shared viewing experience, the study showed a much different picture—a nation divided, with a widening gulf between what Blacks and Whites are watching each night in prime time.
“The report does show a continuing divide,” said Doug Alligood, the senior vice president at BBDO who conducted the study. “It grew from an attempt by advertising agencies to make more informed decisions when buying commercial time for their clients who wanted to reach African American viewers.”
Ironically, the report spelled doom for Black programming and Black viewers.
The report cited a correlation between the presence of Black talent on screen and strong ratings with Black viewers. There were no shows in the Top 10 among Black viewers that did not feature Black performers in starring or major supporting roles. But other factors, such as schedule position, also play a role in the ratings, according to BBDO.
Again, this report was released in 1996. That same year networks grasped the impact of the report, a number of the hottest shows i.e. Fox’s “New York Undercover” in its third season began to ‘Whiten’ up the show, and make significant changes. Mind you the very success of “New York Undercover,” had raised the stakes for Fox which was now chasing bigger dreams.
In a recent “Unsung Hollywood” episode airing on TV One, the former cast of “New York Undercover” discussed the impact of this sudden change, and the eventual demise of the show.
According to “Unsung Hollywood,” “Fox was a major network and home to the Super Bowl; minority programming was no longer a priority.” According to one of the writers on the show, “The intention was to sort of broaden the demographic, but they just changed the format of the show completely. Fox told Dick Wolfe (executive producer “Law and Order”) outright, “We want to market this show overseas, we want to syndicate this show. So, to do that we need to get rid of some of that ethnicity and attract a global White audience.” A show producer said, “They thought if they added some White characters that the show would continue on, it didn’t work that way.” Ratings plunged and Fox pulled the plug on “New York Undercover.”
That was then, this is now. All of Hollywood is watching Fox’s “Empire” this season, and it is not an enviable position to be in. based on the success of “Empire” the other networks are dipping into the Black talent pool hoping to come up with the next big ratings winner. The major question is “will this series continue getting respectable ratings to keep the advertisers happy or will the numbers dip? And if the numbers dip, and keep dipping will it sound the ‘death nil’ for Black programming once again?
Today there are so many choices for viewing exactly what you want to see on TV. No longer can we say, “There is nothing on but this or that.” TV viewing has become a veritable smorgasbord of programming old and new. So, maybe TV execs will not be so quick to pull the plug. The networks face an incredible challenge when it comes to garnering and keeping viewers.
For example program scheduling has a dramatic effect on the success of a network.
In a recent interview conducted by Adweeks’ Jason Lynch with 5 Prime-Time TV Schedulers he learned that the decisions they make can make or break the next season. “With 412 scripted and approximately 750 unscripted series airing on broadcast, cable and streaming sites last year, and even more in the works for 2016, “if no one knows you’re there, it doesn’t do you any good,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president, CBS Primetime.
With that thought in mind, strategic planning and capitalizing on the network’s assets Executive Vice President of program planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment, Andy Kubitz created ABC’s TGIT in the fall of 2014. It was a daring move—Thursday night’s line-up of Shonda Rhimes produced dramas: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Kubitz says, “It was ridiculed in many corners. We leaned into our strength took all the bullets and came out with great success.”
Bottomline, the stakes are higher, and advertising dollars are spread thin. All programming has got to deliver or it’s gone. And because Black shows, as well as other ethnic themed shows are on ‘tender footing’ from the start, they are sometimes the first to go. But when they hit, they hit. “Empire” not only hit…it hit the ball out of the park. How? By giving people what they didn’t know they wanted.
Face it, we are a nation of music lovers, all kinds of music for all kinds of people. Music has always brought people of different cultures together, and that’s what the show is doing. Add a little spice, drama, maliciousness, etc. and you got a hit.
Listed below is a brief sampling of more hopefuls that have that ‘common ground’ appeal for television viewers.
Fox’s “Star” is a great contender. It will likely draw a multi-cultural audience. There are no hot girl groups in music right now. The musical drama, set in Atlanta revolves around three girls who come together to form a band.
With the right casting and the right sound, this show could be a monster hit. And it doesn’t hurt that Queen Latifah is a part of the Lee Daniels team.
Cast: Queen Latifah, Benjamin Bratt. Team: W/EP Lee Daniels, Tom Donaghy (“Empire”; EP Pamela Oas Williams, Effie Brown; D Lee Daniels
Comedy is still King. People love to laugh, and if marketed right several Network Black comedies could be hits.
Fox’s “Famous” (Straight-to-Series Order)
Almost everybody dreams of being famous for something. And the web has made it happen for countless people (common ground). “Famous” the sitcom focuses on a young couple tested by the wife’s instant fame when a music video goes viral on the web and she gets a record deal.
The producing team of Ralph Farquhar (“Real Hollywood Husbands”) and Ty Hodges (“A Girl Like Grace”) are the creators and producers.
ABC is bringing back some very funny women, including comedian Wanda Sykes in “Dream Team.” Who can resist young kids and sports…or a diverse group of kids that are not so great at sports and their hopeful parents.
“Hail Mary” A young woman and small-town mayor woman fakes a miracle to save her bankrupt town. The very funny Jackee Harry is on the scene along with Casey Wilson.
And let us not forget the business of show business. It takes advertising dollars to keep all shows on the air.
The question is, “Where does Black America stand economically?” We have a powerful watchdog so to speak, tracking, gathering pertinent information on our earning and spending habits. Every year, Target Market News—the Black Consumer Market Report publishes The Buying Power of Black America, the only report that breaks down in dollars and cents the impact of the Black Consumer Market. Now at more than a trillion dollars in spending, the income of Black Americans is already equal to the 20th largest economy in the world.
This report has been used by Proctor & Gamble, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Toyota Motor Sales, Walmart, Disney, Microsoft, AT&T, Starcom Media Vest, Burrell Communications, and hundreds of advertising agencies, marketing communications firms and Fortune 1000 companies.
For more information on Target Market News go to www.targetmarketnews.com
And don’t forget to check out Hollywood Unsung on TV One. Check your local listing for times. Or if you’re like me and can’t access the channel, go to your Demand cable channel and click TV and be directed alphabetically to the channel.
Gail Choice can be reached at Gail@hollywoodbychoice.com