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TV in black and white

No current TV show ranks in the Top 10 with both black and white viewers.

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1998


African-Americans are a hot topic on TV this season. Whether it's the controversial comedy "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," the canceled "In the House," or the ambitious Television Race Initiative on PBS (including "Family Name" and "Africans in America") blacks are being noticed. Some shows aim to shed light on the black experience and the state of race relations; others seem no more than an effort to market products to black viewers.

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One thing seems certain: The days of a single show, like "Julia," "The Jeffersons," or "The Cosby Show," that defines a black generation are gone.

With the disappearance of a single representation of blacks has come more diverse and realistic images. But according to industry analysts and minority activists, the story of blacks on TV now is also more complicated and sometimes troubling.

"We're in a period of TV history where there isn't just one story anymore," says Robert Thompson, director of the center the study of popular television at Syracuse University. Back in the 1970s, he says, every image counted because "when you saw 'Sanford & Son' there weren't enough images out there, so one role became a stand-in for a whole group of people."

Today, he says, we've reached a turning point. Because there are now many different approaches, "TV is trying to move from being stories that were always about race to stories that have people of race and that's not the focus anymore."

But Dartmouth University professor Victor Leo Walker calls that trend just another way of denying the importance of race. "Anyone who ... believes that through the media and popular culture, race will drop into the background is just plain off," he says. Professor Walker, a drama instructor, says TV does serve to suggest the deeper questions, even if only by default. "In our society, race is still a major factor in political and social life," he points out.

Until the deeper social issues are addressed, race will never move off the radar screen of popular culture, Walker says. "A lot of people don't understand how complicated this is, that you have to look at who has access to the resources, who's telling the stories," he says. Until those issues are resolved equitably, he adds, in the words of scholar and black writer Cornell West, "race matters."

The issue goes even deeper, according to Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California: "The representations we see in popular culture are another way to point out how segregated we are as far as race." For instance, he says, not a single show is among the Top 10 most viewed by both blacks and whites.

A high degree of separation

Professor Boyd, author of "Am I Black Enough for You?" says he believes that as a society we have less in common today than we did in the past. He maintains that this reality is partly a legacy of the black-power movement of the 1960s and '70s. "We have a whole generation of black people who took the wrong message from the black-power movement," he says. "Now, we have a whole group of blacks with no interest in integrating with mainstream society."

The newer networks, WB and UPN in particular, have been accused by black activists of exploiting this sense of separateness in what story consultant and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint calls "a ghettoization of television viewing."

"TV viewing among young blacks, especially, is very segregated," says Dr. Poussaint, who consulted on what has been called the last great crossover series, watched by both blacks and whites, "The Cosby Show." The television industry "is feeding into separate lives between the races," he adds.