Although by no means a new term, "waves" has been used—often, contentiously—a lot in the entertainment sphere lately. It speaks to movements: specifically, their popularity as measured by the reaction and adoption of others. Periods of dormancy are always followed by spikes of activity. This happens across all mediums, but, historically, has been a fascinating constant in black television.
The path to today’s climate of black television has been long, winding, and polarizing. With the 1939 debut of her variety show, The Ethel Waters Show, Ethel Waters became the first African-American to have her own television program. Amos n’ Andy holds the distinction of being the first sitcom with a majority black cast, but it was yanked from the air in the early 1950s following protests due to its reliance on racist stereotypes. With the 1960s came further expansion: the introduction of Cicely Tyson as the first African-American in a recurring role on a primetime drama; Bill Cosby as the first actor to star in a network drama; Diahann Carroll as the first actress to carry a series in a non-subjugated role. A wave of popular sitcoms arrived during the 1970s with Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening!! and Good Times. Along with BET's inception, the 1980s saw The Cosby Show grow into one of the best television shows ever—valid criticism considered—and begat A Different World, a groundbreaking depiction of the black college experience. This served as a lead-in to the 1990s' flourish, where network television housed 18 black sitcoms by 1997.
The 2000s were quieter by comparison—enough so, that black television’s recent upswing has been positioned as a "rebirth." But black television never died, per se; it merely tapered off. This recent increase is the wave rising once again.
By setting a high standard, The Cosby Show and A Different World set black television up for success during the '90s. The Cosby Show’s prime was in the '80s, but some of A Different World’s strongest episodes were topical, focusing on issues relevant (and, in some cases, germane) to the ‘90s: HIV and AIDS, the Persian Gulf War, and the L.A. Riots.
A range of shows emerged during the early '90s, from the boundary-pushing sketch comedy of In Living Color to the fish-out-of-water intrigue of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s through misfortune that Will Smith, already a Grammy-winning rapper, agreed to do the latter. While the show revealed his limitless potential as an entertainer (and the fact that he could actually act), it now exists in rarefied territory because it's iconic across the board. Everyone knew the theme song; everyone had some degree of appreciation for Will’s finesse. Because acclaim creates demand, no network wanted to be left behind.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of black television during the '90s is that, not only did networks create blocks of programming targeting minority audiences, but those blocks could contend with the small screen's strongest programming. Shows like Seinfeld and Friends only existed in syndication for me during childhood, because I favored Fox’s Thursday lineup to NBC’s for a very specific reason: that’s where I could see the people who looked like me. By the time Fox solidified its fabled Thursday night lineup in the fall of 1994, an assortment of programming was on the menu. Joining Martin’s hilarious irreverence and Living Single’s transmission of Queen Latifah's feminism was New York Undercover. In addition to putting two minority actors in lead roles, it capsized the police procedural by making the show more personal, more stylish, and more illustrative of that era thanks to the guest stars (Ice-T, Tyra Banks, and a young Chris Webber, to name a few) and live performances. The show was so entwined with pop culture that the cast presented the Billboard Music Award for Album of the Year to Hootie & the Blowfish in 1995. (For what it's worth, it didn't hurt that the awards and show aired on the same network.)
With the boom in effect, the WB launched with The Wayans Bros. and Robert Townsend’s The Parent 'Hood in 1995, and soon resurrected Sister, Sister after it met ABC's guillotine. The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show were added to the fold the following year. Around the same time, UPN rescued LL Cool J’s In the House from NBC, adding it to their roster of shows that included Moesha and Malcolm & Eddie. And these are just the well-known shows. There was a miscellany of programs throughout the decade, such as Charles S. Dutton’s Roc, Patti LaBelle’s Up All Night, and On Our Own featuring Jussie, Jurnee, and the remainder of the half-dozen Smollett siblings, that received less attention. There’s no singular feature of '90s black television, and that's its enduring grace. There was variety; there were options, something that began to wane in the new millennium.
The idea of black television's complete demise during the aughts is somewhat fictitious. The reduction in programming is undeniable, but ebb shouldn’t be mistaken for death. The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife & Kids, One on One, and Everybody Hates Chris weathered through this period, while Half & Half, Eve, and All Of Us are often forgotten about. Girlfriends spawned The Game, which BET revived in 2011 and maintained until its end in 2015—an act that speaks to the occasionally buried role of cable television during this time. The television adaptation of Soul Food ran for five seasons on Showtime beginning in 2000. Comedy Central was home to Chappelle’s Show, which wasn’t as incendiary as In Living Color, but is largely canonized because of its unapologetic blackness. Adult Swim had The Boondocks, while Disney had The Proud Family and That’s So Raven! Even The Wire and its sprawling exposition of society’s layers was rooted in one side of the black experience. The programming never vanished, but the industry’s overseers are selective about what to push the button on, as well as when to push it.
Hollywood has always been a country club; a near-exclusive kick back for white men. Entertainment is a results-based industry where everyone, these white men especially, operate out of fear—specifically fear of unemployment. Through the years, that fear has translated into networks joyriding minorities, only to abandon them when they’re deemed useless. Although Hollywood as a whole is mired by racism-as-caution, major networks tip-toe on the most fragile of eggshells when casting leads because there was serious concern about whether audiences would engage with blacks in those roles. But trendsetting is part of black heritage: we’ve always dictated what’s popular, and, to this day, rarely profit from or are credited for it. When a 2014 Nielsen report revealed that blacks watch more television than anyone else, the proliferation of black faces across networks was the result.
In this indisputably white medium restricted by red tape, money greenlights all. The laughable revelation that diversity is ethical and profitable has created the television landscape seen today.
A change has taken place with blacks on television, but not the change that’s being discussed enough. In the past, television was a rite of passage for movie stars; these days, the stars are returning to television. Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire all have black women who are film actresses—Kerry Washington; Viola Davis; Taraji P. Henson—in leading roles, and both Davis and Henson are Oscar nominees. (Davis became the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama last year; Henson just won a Golden Globe for her work on Empire last month.) Regina King, another film actress, won a Primetime Emmy in 2015 for her performance on American Crime. And while these shows (two of which are created by Shonda Rhimes, a black woman) are carried by or feature black women in prominent roles, they aren’t inherently black.
black-ish (which also stars Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne), on the other hand, wears its blackness in theme and title just as A Different World did. The aforementioned, irrefutably black Empire is a phenomenon in that Fox introduced it mid-season, its ratings climbed each week, and, because of this, was the beneficiary of more aggressive marketing after it aired. Everything that made the drama wonderfully egregious in season one has been literally ratcheted up this season. The success seen on broadcast networks bleeds into cable, as well.
BET and TV One have original shows like Being Mary Jane and The Real Husbands of Hollywood, awards shows unique to them, and documentary series' like Unsung. Tyler Perry, forever a controversial figure, has created a cluster of shows for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. And, hate it or love it, reality television is also part of black television's domain. Mona Scott-Young, as contentious a figure as Perry, almost monopolizes that space at VH1. The area carved out by Flavor of Love, Real Chance at Love, and For the Love of Ray J during the previous decade has been taken over by every Love & Hip-Hop variant. Back in the world of scripted programs, Power is so popular that Starz isn't quitting on shows after two seasons anymore, hence why we'll see it and Survivor's Remorse's third seasons later this year.
By indulging black viewers, networks have created more options. But options don’t necessarily constitute a shift of paradigm. There’s a wealth of programming today, and Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta will bring different perspectives on blackness in the future, but there’s still room for improvement and growth because tastes aren't universal. Not everyone related to The Cosby Show and A Different World. Some still can't get past black-ish's title. Some will always view Empire as top flight coonery. Black people are a mosaic, not a monolith, so no one person or show will reflect everyone. That's why even more of a variety is needed: the opinions are as diverse as the audience, itself.
Like black people, black television is large; it contains multitudes. It also continues to operate in waves in terms of show volume, but hopefully this leap on the bell curve levels off instead of plummeting again when the shot-callers decide "the people" are no longer interested. Perhaps that will create a future with a cornucopia of black television—great black television, to be exact.