Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Judging from the recent announcements by the networks about their new Fall season line-ups it appears that drama series are back in style. Or maybe I should say what's in style are drama series that still feature mostly white characters and themes. The only exception is the new series scheduled to debut on CBS in January from producer Steven Bochco that centers on life in an inner-city hospital with a predominantly African-American cast.
Even with this series I'll bet that TV executives will have their eyes glued more nervously than usual on the ratings to see if the series is an instant hit. If it isn't I'll also bet many of them will say with a wink and a nod see, "we told you that TV viewers will accept blacks in roles as comedians and clowns but not in the serious stuff." But this is mostly self-serving myth.
If a film, or TV series, is well-written, with compelling stories, and laced with crackling performances there is absolutely no reason why viewers wouldn't tune in to it week after week. And even if Bochco's series didn't take off right away, so what? When the highly successful series NYPD Blue debuted it had low ratings and came within a hairs breath of being canceled. Yet TV executives saw the potential of the show and stuck with it until it eventually caught on. I would hope that they'd do the same with a black drama series that had the same potential and not snatch it from the air after one season as happened with the highly acclaimed black drama series Frank's Place.
Now what about the notion that whites will watch blacks in a comedy series but not in a drama series? A little history refresher course is in order here. For decades whites have packed concert halls to cheer black artists, hail black sports figures, applaud black divas, tout the works of black writers, poets and playwrights. In the 1970s the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman racked up high ratings and much critical praise. Roots is still the most watched TV mini-series ever. In more recent days HBO's Miss Evers Boys, TNT's Passing Glory, and Showtimes's Linc's Place attracted a solid viewing audience. NBC's the Temptations, and Mama Flora's Family also garnered huge audience numbers.
The experience of blacks in the film industry also proves that there's a broad audience for serious black-themed productions. During the 1930s and 1940's black filmmakers generally avoided the standard clown, and coon roles reserved for blacks in those days and depicted them as cowboys, detectives, business persons, doctors and lawyers. These films were financially successful.
In the 1960's and 1970's, black-themed films such as Nothing But A Man, Sounder, and Lady Sings the Blues did well at the box office. More recently actor/producer Tim Reid's Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, Soul Food, Sankofa, Waiting to Exhale, and Eve's Bayou were well-received by black and non-black audiences.
But why wouldn't they be? Most blacks don't fit the media stereotyped crime and violence-prone image. More blacks than ever before have higher incomes are in business, trades, and the professions. They are sick and tired of seeing themselves portrayed on TV as clowns, criminals, pimps, whores, welfare queens, and crack moms.
What TV executives also continue to ignore is that African-American households are near obsessive TV watchers. According to a TN Media survey blacks watched forty percent more TV than non-blacks in the final quarter of 1998. That adds up to 70 hours a week of TV viewing compared to about 50 hours for non-blacks. So the audience is there.
The message then is that African-American TV viewers deserve and crave more films, TV parts, and yes, more dramatic series, that present an accurate and honest picture of all aspects of black life. CBS took the plunge with its upcoming series, now will the other networks have the courage to jump in with a dramatic series of their own that presents a serious view of black life?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:Earl Hutchinson
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