One of the most significant issues concerning African Americans in the media is their portrayal on network television. This blanket category has several important facets including in what programs blacks typically appear and their roles. After examining these issues, important conclusions about the nature of network television come to light.
However, a closer examination of the facts shows that these statistics are deceptive. The facts do not show which networks are more integrated. During the 1999 season, 11% of the characters on NBC and only 10% of the actors on Fox were black (Kumbier). In addition, the documented increase in the number of African Americans appearing on television shows from 1978 to 1989 did not take into account the genres in which blacks were cast. The increase in this figure can largely be attributed to a higher percentage of blacks being cast in situation comedies (Ford, 266). In the 1970’s, Reid conducted a study that revealed how blacks were disproportionately cast in comedic programs compared to whites. Approximately half of the blacks on network television were displayed in comedies, whereas only one-third of whites appeared in such shows (Ford, 267). The same held true during the 1980’s, with one-third of African Americans’ appearances being derived from six situation comedies (Ford, 267). This trend continued into the 1990’s when in 1999 six or seven sit-coms accounted for half of the African American appearances on network television. In addition, blacks with the highest screen time were all found in “African American oriented situation comedies” (Kumbier).
Some might question the harm of casting blacks in comedy shows. The shows are upbeat, they make people laugh, and usually the characters become endeared to their audience. This view, however, is not firmly grounded. Portrayal of African Americans in situation comedies is significant because it affects how society, especially the white demographic, views blacks. In a 1972 study, Greenberg found that over half of white children reported that television was their primary source of information on blacks (Ford, 266). A more disturbing statistic is that a majority of the children thought that what they saw was true to reality (Ford, 266). A 1994 study by Thomas Ford shed new light on Greenberg’s research. Ford’s analysis discovered that portraying blacks in a comedic manner, as in situation comedies, caused whites to stereotype them as happy-go-lucky and not serious figures (Ford, 273). Darnell Hunt, the director of UCLA’s Center for African American Studies, concluded in his 1999 study that blacks were often “ghettoized” on network television as a result of being portrayed predominantly in situation comedies (Kumbier).
This view becomes even more significant when examining the types of roles in which blacks are cast. It has often been charged by numerous African American organizations that networks cast blacks as welfare recipients, criminals, and domestic help (Mitchell). Although this statement is a bit severe, it is true that African Americans are often cast as disparaging stereotypes. During the 1980’s, and to some extent even today, blacks were portrayed in “menial personal service occupations” more often than whites (Ford, 267). Greenberg and Atkin’s 1982 research showed that only one-third of African Americans on television were portrayed “as having an identifiable job,” and they were typically shown as having low socio-economic status (Ford, 267). The same principle held true in Hammer’s 1992 analysis of network television shows (Ford, 267). Furthermore, it was very rare that blacks were shown as the main character in a network series, especially in dramas. Blacks have typically been portrayed as the side-kick to the white protagonist (Kumbier).
An exception to this rule during the 1980’s and early 1990’s was The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby’s situation comedy was widely popular and even produced spin-offs, such as A Different World (which took place at a historically black college) (Gray, 468). It was a landmark show in that it employed black writers, directors, and producers. However, even The Cosby Show is not above reproach. Some critics claim that the happy, upper-middle class portrayal of the Huxtables painted a false picture of what life was really like for most African Americans. They claim that this false portrayal caused many people to overlook the problems facing black culture and “confirm[ed] a belief in the openness of the social structure” that was contrary to reality (Gray, 469). Critics say that The Cosby Show encouraged the idea that people in the ghetto could leave if they would only work hard and that those who were confined to such deplorable conditions were there simply because they were lazy (Gray, 469). Despite these reproofs, The Cosby Show was progressive in the way in which it cast blacks in an upper-middle class setting and not in the traditional stereotypical roles.
examination of the networks’ current primetime lineups produces similar results
concerning the quality and quantity of African American oriented programs. None of the three major networks (ABC, CBS,
and NBC) have a show involving predominantly African American characters. In fact, none of these networks feature a
primetime show with a black main character.
Despite its lack of African American programs, ABC does have two Latino
shows, George Lopez and Freddie (although Freddie only touches on the main character’s Puerto Rican
ancestry). Late night programming is
even worse without the presence of a single African American host. Jay Leno’s guitarist Kevin cannot be considered
much more than tokenism. The only bright
spot for the major networks is that there are blacks being shown more on drama
episodes. ABC’s hit show Desperate Housewives has added an
African American family, including actress Alfre Woodard, to
This cannot overshadow the fact that blacks are still at a disadvantage in the way they are portrayed on network television. In the future, the networks must improve this situation and make greater advances in the types of shows and the variety of roles which employ African American actors and actresses.
TV Show Hosted By A Black
Ford, Thomas E. “Effects of Stereotypical Television Portrayals of African Americans on Person Perception.” Social Psychology Quarterly 60, no. 3 (Sept., 1997): 266-275. http://www.jstor.org.
Gray, Herman. “Black and White and in Color.” American Quarterly 45, no. 3 (Sept., 1993): 467-472. http://www.jstor.org.
Kumbier, Alana. The TV Ghetto. http://www.poppolitics.com/articles/printerfriendly/2002-09-tvghetto.shtml.
Mitchell, Rodney. “…And the Company President Is a Black Woman.” http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article234.html.