|Several months ago and on the eve of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG), release of the "African-American Television Report," it was clear that while on many levels African Americans have made tremendous strides with regard to the producers, directors and even images they portray on screen, a more unsettling wave of "blacking out" actors has moved in.
According to SAG, headed by actress Anne Marie Johnson ("Heat of the Night"), the report's purpose was to create an assessment tool for producers and network executives in charge of implementing diversity plans. Enlisting the aid of researchers and psychologist from across the nation, the study was authored by Dr. Darnell Hunt. It showed that just as the pendulum swung in the direction of "Sanford and Son" and "Good Times" before making its way back across the median to "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World," it is in the process of making the tedious journey back to the opposite extreme.
"There are some noteworthy exceptions, of course, but the numbers clearly indicate a pattern in which African-American performers are concentrated on situation comedies, on the newer, smaller networks, and on two nights of the week," explained Dr. Hunt. "These findings are important because the ways in which groups are included on or excluded from America's dominant medium reflect, in strikingly visual terms, unresolved questions about power imbalances in our society."
For the most part, networks have opted out of producing shows with African-American themes and majority black casts, for mainstream situation comedies and dramas which feature a handful of minorities in lead or secondary roles. And although, "Shows like "Homicide" and "Third Watch" are very rare and I think that the prevalence of strong black male characters was the real popularity of them. On "Homicide" alone, you had a series that lasted eight seasons and had six to eight strong, educated and strikingly different African-American characters on it every week playing roles from the lieutenant to the criminal," said filmographer Derrius Sexton.
According to Hunt, who serves as the Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, African-American characters on television are, to a large degree, "ghettoized," by show type (situation comedy), by network (WB and UPN) and by day of the week on which the show airs (Monday and Friday nights).
Since the report, the new fall lineup and mid season replacements have given some hope to this potentially problematic trend. Lifetime Television's "Strong Medicine," executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg is one good example. "Strong Medicine" is a perfect compliment to the critically acclaimed series "Any Day Now," which remains in the ratings lead. The show details the challenges of two women, one black the other white, as they run a women's clinic together.
Lifetime was never really a problem channel though, primarily because it was created for women and took a fresh, innovative approach to programming. However, the two worst networks in the study, FOX and NBC, have made some strides in remedying their minority programming. Less than 10% of the characters appearing on FOX and about 11% of those on NBC were African-American. Moreover, most of these characters were not central to their respective program's story line.
African-American characters are rarely series regulars on FOX. Nearly three quarters of all shows on Fox (72.7%) had no African American series regulars. By contrast, two-thirds of the programs on CBS (66.7%) featured at least one African-American series regular. Since then, NBC produced "Third Watch", featuring Michael Beach as the lead and a host of minority actors fill out the grooves in the one-hour rescue squad drama. FOX, going a step or two further, brought along both "Boston Public" with Loretta Devine, Chi McBride and Sharon Leal in lead roles and "The $treet" with Giancarlo Esposito and Melissa DeSousa.
Funded by the SAG-Producers Industry Advancement & Cooperative Fund, the African American Television Report examines 384 episodes of 87 prime time series on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN and WB over five selected weeks (between Oct. 17 and Dec. 4, 1999) and is the most comprehensive study of the 1999 prime time season to date.
Though the results of the study are making slow, positive ripples, it remains unclear whether this remedy is a good one.
"If you look at the little black kid on "Malcolm in the Middle," he is someone who is black, handicap, and a nerd. Eriq LaSalle is on ER is having all kinds of unnatural problems. He is the powerful character, but with unscrupulous sexual practices, poor moral character and a kid who is autistic. It's like if you're the black character, be prepared to be a minority in more ways than one," said Sexton.