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.
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.
Beyond that, he decries the low quality of writing on many of the shows that target blacks, such as the now-cancelled "In the House" and "Good News." Many of these shows "depict blacks ridiculing blacks," he says, adding that they follow in a time-honored tradition of "presenting black people who are acceptable to whites."
Many blacks are ambivalent about trying to engage in mainstream white culture, according to Walker. He echoes writer James Baldwin in asking, "What is the price of the ticket?"
"To be part of this medium we call TV, what are we willing to leave behind?" he asks. Walker, who is also co-founder of the African Grove Institute, a group devoted to fostering black theater, says the history of blacks on TV is a slow progression of "glimmers" such as "Julia" or "Roots," shows that pushed the creative envelope "but still didn't fundamentally change the social order." The reason more-provocative TV shows don't see the light of day is simple: "It's a safe medium," points out Walker. "TV executives don't want to offend sponsors."
Walker calls producer and actor Tim Reid of the critically acclaimed but short-lived series "Frank's Place" one of the brightest of those "glimmers" in TV today.
Mr. Reid says being in control of his own production facilities has been key to realizing his own vision. For his new comedy on Showtime, "Linc's," he says of his new countryside studio, "I literally moved to Virginia and bought the farm."
Other bright spots on the horizon include "Mama Flora's Family," a two-part mini-series about a black family's struggles with racism, earned critical acclaim when it aired earlier this month. Poussaint also points to ABC's "The Hughleys," which is written by and based on the life of black comic Darryl Hughley.
To understand how the TV landscape is shaped, look at who's in charge, says USC's Boyd, pointing to a nearly complete absence of faces of color in the executive suites at networks and studios.
Ever aware of their mandate to "broadcast," rather than narrow-cast, the heads of all six networks responded to questions about race during their presentations about the new season to TV critics earlier this year. Fox's Peter Roth was typical: "I'm just looking for situations wherein that [African-American] point of view can be universal and relatable to a larger audience as well."
Racial issues won't fade anytime soon
Marcy Carsey of Carsey-Werner, the coproducers of "The Cosby Show," suggests that demographics may speak for themselves. She notes that "the heads of networks are all of the same background and same gender, and maybe that's part of it, maybe they're comfortable with a certain kind of programming."
Until the fundamentals begin to change, the overall picture will not be brighter anytime in the near future. Racial concerns aren't going to fade any time soon.
"For so long, it was all about black and white," Boyd observes. That's no longer the case. "The America we inhabit at the close of this century is fundamentally different than 1970 or certainly 1950," he points out.
Latinos and Asian Americans also have concerns about their places in American society. These concerns may be the next to be addressed, he says. Popular culture, including TV, will be the best way to do it. "It has always been the answer," he says.
* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is email@example.com