The Progression and Regression of African Americans on Television

Introduction to the problem

Having nine younger siblings, seven nieces and nephews, and a three year old daughter I have become hypersensitive to everything around me.  In today’s world of heavy media influence, I pay special attention to magazines, television programs, and the internet.

Due to the massive amount of content in each of these areas, I will cover television in this blog.  Right now my daughter is only interested in Elmo, Little Bill, Dora, and Super Why.  But one day those interests will change.  I hope that by then the images on television will have improved and that she will be able to see positive reflections of people who look like her on television.  The programs overall are already bad.  The problem gets even worse when you look at African Americans on television.  By no means am I an expert on television.  This is my opinion of one small aspect of a larger problem.

Historical perspective

The invention and early evolution of television can be traced back to the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Regular television programming did not start until the late 1940’s. Prior to this time, in-home family time and individual entertainment involved reading a book, talking at dinner, or sitting around listening to the radio. Many of today’s Soap Operas started on radio.

One of the earliest representations of African American’s on radio was the show “Amos ‘n’Andy.” The show was a poor depiction of African Americans because it displayed the two main characters as buffoons.  And when the show transitioned from radio to television from 1928 – 1960, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” shaped early radio and television.  As a result, many depictions of African Americans during these early years of television were not flattering.

Amos n' Andy

During the 1970’s and early 1980’s more shows were added to major networks.  Shows like Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times were regularly watched in many homes across the United States.  These shows were the beginning of an upward swing for African- American representation on television.

This upward spiral reached its peak in 1989 when The Cosby Show, 227, Amen, A Different World, and Family Matters were all on the air on major networks.  I define the major networks as ABC, CBS, and NBC.  FOX is somewhere between the major networks and UPN, CW, and the WB.   Many shows tried to carry the torch that was lit by the Cosby Show but were unable equal it in success.  The 90’s developed a string of shows, some successful and others not so much.  What was very noticeable is that the quality of the shows began to deteriorate and that many shows were not being entertained by major networks.  Instead, those shows were airing on the WB and UPN.  Very few shows remained on the major networks or FOX.

From 2000 to 2010 the quality of African-American programming hit rock bottom.  The best shows (best in regards to quality writing, acting, and content) during this era were The Bernie Mac Show (FOX) and My Wife and Kids (ABC.  The show that changed it all was Flavor of Love (VH1).

Flavor of Love

I was a fan of VH1 until it produced this string of shows:

  • Flavor of Love (2006 – 2008)
  • I Love New York (2007 – 2008)
  • New York Goes to Hollywood (2008)
  • Real Chance of Love (2008 – 2009)
  • New York Goes to Work       (2009)
  • Basketball Wives (2010 – present)
  • Basketball Wives: LA (2011 – present)
  • Single Ladies (2011 – present)

While these shows may be highly entertaining, they do nothing for a community of people that already struggle with materialism, apathy, joblessness, poverty, high imprisonment, and high homicide rates.  These shows also continue to perpetuate the stereotypes that many of us work so hard to diminish.

Conversely, a great television show cannot be expected to turn a community around.  The point is to implant an idea and move away from the negativity.  All good things start as an idea.

Current representations overall

The current state of television programming is at an all-time low.  As an African American the most positive images we see are:

  • Athletes
  • News Reporters (Example: Roland Martin)
  • Judges who have their own shows
  • The All Spice Guy
  • Dennis Haysbert (All State commercials)
Dennis Haysbert - Allstate

If you consider athletes as role models know that there is a real chance we will not have basketball this year.  If there is no basketball, these young men and women will spend their time watching other wonderful shows like Basketball Wives.

Here is a list of shows that are currently on the air:

  1. Judge Mathis (1998 – present) Syn.
  2. Judge Joe Brown (1997 – present) Syn.
  3. Judge Hatchett (2000 – present) Syn.
  4. 106 & Park (2000 – present) BET
  5. Boondocks (2005 – present) Adult Swim
  6. Divine Restoration (2005 – present) TV-One
  7. The Game (2006 – present) CW/BET
  8. Def Comedy Jam (2) (2006 – present) HBO
  9. Tyler Perry’s House of Payne (2006 – present) TBS
  10. Sunday Best (2007 – present) BET
  11. Wendy Williams Show (2008 – present) BET/Syn.
  12. Real Housewives of Atlanta (2008 – present) Bravo
  13. Unsung (2008 – present) TV-One
  14. Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns (2009 – present) TBS
  15. Life After (2009 – present) TV-One
  16. The Cleveland Show (2009 – present) FOX
  17. Basketball Wives (2010 – present) VH1
  18. The Ultimate Merger (2010 – present) TV One
  19. Are We There Yet (2010 – present) TBS
  20. Love That Girl (2010 – present) TV-One
  21. Washington Watch (2010 – present) TV-One
  22. Lisa Raye: The Real McCoy (2010 – present) TV-One
  23. Way Black When (2011 – present) TV-One
  24. Basketball Wives: LA (2011 – present) VH1
  25. Toya: A Family Affair (2011 – present) BET
  26. Single Ladies (2011 – present) VH-1
  27. In the Flow (2011 – present) FOX
  28. Black Dynamite (2011 – present) Adult Swim

One could also argue that the shows like Cops, The First 48, and Bait Car are African-American shows considering the heavy number of African Americans represented in these shows.  Watch any of these shows and you will understand.

According to the Nielsen Company the average American spends 153 hours per month watching television.  That is over six days of consecutive television watching.  Television watching is at an all-time high.

Final Thoughts

It is unrealistic to monitor your children 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  We are living in a sad state of affairs when the only positive African American men seen on TV are from Tyler Perry sitcoms.  I have nothing against Tyler Perry, but I believe that we can do better.

Television is pretty horrible across the board.  I would like to see more positive representations of African-American men and women in television.  Here are three suggestions for improvement:

  • As consumers we need to understand that we fuel the demand for products
    • If you do not watch it, it will go off the air
  • Television networks need to exhibit social responsibility
    • Air more shows that exhibit the wide range of cultures represented in America
  • African Americans in Hollywood need to step-up
    • We need to have more shows created for major networks.

Television programming is a matter of taste.  It is not as simple as changing the channel.  We need to be proactive as consumers and demand what we want.  If we continue to accept the trash that we are being fed then the menu will never change.  Television is not just entertainment.  It is a tool used to saturate the untrained mind.

List of all African American television shows

Related blogs

The New Racism on Television

Black Television Actors that influenced me

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