I miss seeing black people on TV. I say it often and loudly to anyone who will listen. My memories of growing up watching TV included tuning in to see a variety of faces that looked like mine. There were black sitcoms (Martin, Living Single, A Different World) and sitcoms that just happened to have black casts (The Cosby Show, Family Matters) but we were represented. Today, aside from subpar offerings from Tyler Perry’s cadre of mediocre actors and treacly plotlines, black people have been relegated to the background as supporting actors in largely white casts.
So let’s revisit the 1980s. Let’s talk about that glorious moment in time when television studios didn’t find it so outlandish to think white audiences would tune in to watch black people on TV.
Rollback to 1984 and television executives thought sitcoms may be dying. All in the Family, the last sitcom ratings smash, had ended in 1980. Long-running hit Alice fell out of the Ratings Top 10 the next year and the Jeffersons lost its Top 10 rating the year after that, both series facing the chopping block soon. NBC had bet big on Mama’s Family in 1983, but the show didn’t catch on and faced cancellation in May 1984 (it would be brought back two years later by Lorimar in syndication with extra characters).
Marcy Carsey and Tom Warner saw Bill Cosby’s stand-up act and thought to build a sitcom around him using his comedic material as the basis for a family-driven show. NBC picked up the show and it was a ratings smash from the onset with the first season of The Cosby Show ending at #3 in the Nielsen Ratings. The single biggest television hit of the 1980s, the Huxtables led the pack as the most-watched television program for the next five seasons and jumpstarted a trend of black sitcoms toward the end of the decade.
The next year, 1985, saw the sudden end to The Jeffersons. Ratings had started sliding in 1982, and by 1984, Marla Gibbs who played Florence the housekeeper was in talks with ABC to star in an upcoming sitcom based on a play from the 1970s. NBC (home of The Cosby Show) ultimately bought the show and made plans to put it on the 1986 fall schedule. When the axe fell at CBS on the Jeffersons in 1985, the show was fast-tracked and 227 became the second black sitcom in as many years to find a home at NBC. Buoyed by the success of The Cosby show the year before, 227 found its way into the Top Twenty for its first season, climbing to #14 the following year.
If you’re keeping score that’s The Cosby Show (1984) and 227 (1985).
After The Jeffersons was canceled so abruptly, Sherman Hemsley found himself still popular but without a job. By 1986, NBC was slowly building momentum not only as a sitcom powerhouse (The Golden Girls also proved a smash hit for NBC in 1985) but as a home for black talent. NBC built a sitcom around Hemsley and Amen was born in September 1986. It too was a hit for NBC, finishing its first season at #13.
By 1987, there was tension on the set of The Cosby Show. Lisa Bonet and Bill Cosby were increasingly at odds, with Bonet’s bad-girl public image contrasting sharply with her good-girl character on The Cosby Show. When discussions of a spin-off arose, some say Cosby took the opportunity to get Bonet out of his hair onto a different show (as opposed to outright firing her as he did Carl Anthony Payne II who played Theo’s friend Cockroach). Cosby shipped her off to college and A Different World was born.
Originally centering on Denise, the show’s reviews for the first season weren’t the best. Predictably, it was a hit, airing between The Cosby Show and Cheers, though critics thought the writing needed improvement. For the 1988 season, Debbie Allen (sister to Phylicia Rashad who played Clair Huxtable) took over as producer and frequent director, turning A Different World into a sitcom about the the college experience at a black university. Drawing from her own years at Howard University, Allen exposed much of the country to student life outside of their norm, exploring themes of race and social issues left untouched by the Cosby Show.
In just four years, NBC revitalized the sitcom landscape and exposed America to the diversity of the black experience in this country. Other networks followed suit with hits of their own. ABC gave us Family Matters (1989) and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (1992). Fox, still a fledgling network taking risks, gave us Martin (1992) and Living Single (1993). From the upper-middle class wholesomeness of the Huxtables to the rich shenanigans of The Bankses, the working-class slapstick of the Winslows and the homespun girlfriends of 227 and Living Single, if you were black in America in the late 80s and early 90s, you could see yourself in your own favorite characters.
The flood of black faces on television slowed to gentle stream by the 2000s, drying up to a trickle by 2005 when Damon Wayans’ My Wife and Kids was cancelled. From a peak in 1990 with no less than six hits with black casts airing simultaneously on one of the Big Four (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX), we now have Zero. Black TV shows have been relegated to paid cable corners of the internet with inferior writing and little-to-no marketing. As far as I can tell, there are no changes on the horizon. Studios seem to be content with one or two brown faces in otherwise white casts (Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock, Damon Wayans Jr on Happy Endings, Nene Leakes on The New Normal). The only black sitcom on broadcast television, The Cleveland Show, is animated and voiced by white actors.
Maybe by the time I have kids the landscape will have changed again and my little ones can see examples of black families and black friendships on television. Perhaps we’ll get back to that golden age and the only black people on TV won’t be tokens in white shows or That One Embarrassing Eyewitness on the local news at 11. Until then, we’ll have to make do with DVD box sets and our own memories of better times while we sit through the continued under-representation of brown people in mainstream media.