Since Black History Month has officially begun, I thought now would be a good time to tell you that black people watch TV, too.
That’s what some media outlets have been declaring now that shows featuring predominantly African-American casts are becoming buzzworthy hits. A recent article on the CNNMoney website started off with the line, “For broadcast television, this is the Year of the African-American Viewer.”
Yes, several new shows geared toward African-American audiences are making the mainstream media take notice, especially since these shows are becoming increasingly popular with viewers. Leading the charge is “Empire,” the soapy Fox drama which premiered a month ago. The show, which is co-created by filmmaker Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler”) and stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as an estranged couple running a record label, has only aired a handful of episodes and has already been anointed the hit of the season. It continues to pick up viewers with each passing week – especially African-American viewers. According to Nielsen, a whopping 62 percent of the show’s 18-to-49 audience is African-American. No other current, prime-time show can match that.
It’s also knocked ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” out of its top spot as the No. 1 new show this season among viewers under 50. “Murder,” which stars Viola Davis as a law professor entwined in a murder plot, is also a drama that features a cast heavily populated with African-Americans. Then again, the show has the unstoppable TV auteur Shonda Rhimes, who, as executive producer, has already proven with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” that shows with multi-ethnic casts can bring in big numbers.
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Smash shows featuring African-American casts are hardly new. The Norman Lear-produced sitcoms “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Sanford & Son” were top-10 hits in the ’70s. And of course “The Cosby Show” was the No. 1 all through the ’80s. (“A Different World,” its eventual spinoff, was in the No. 2 spot.) But dramas featuring black protagonists have often been unsuccessful with audiences. That all changed in 2012, when “Scandal” hit the airwaves and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope became a lead character black and white audiences would want to hang with for an hour a week.
But it’s not just dramas featuring African-Americans that are getting all the ink. ABC’s “Black-ish,” starring Anthony Anderson as the head of an upwardly mobile black family, has been deemed TV’s most popular new sitcom. (It goes head-to-head with “Empire” on Wednesday nights.) Larry Wilmore, that show’s original showrunner, has been making a big splash as host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” in the time slot formerly occupied by Stephen Colbert and “The Colbert Report.”
While TV shows featuring black characters are becoming all the rage, there are those who wish that the content would be better. (As someone who recaps episodes of “Empire” for another outlet, I can honestly say this show needs to chill on the incessant ratchetness and work harder at becoming riveting.) I spoke with Marc Lee, the Durham-based head of Lee Entertainment and the longtime curator for the Hayti Heritage Film Festival (which will be happening Thursday through Saturday at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham), who said that he hasn’t been tuning in to “Empire” or “Murder.” “They seem very stereotypical to me,” says Lee, “in some ways almost a throwback to blaxploitation movies.”
Lee’s opinion aside, TV has been proving it has no qualms showing African-American culture more vividly, whereas the movie industry (still feeling the backlash after “Selma” received two paltry Oscar nominations) often needs to be reminded that black lives matter, especially on the big screen. That’s been the most fascinating thing about this influx of blackness on TV: Many of these shows feature actors and actresses who have been nominated for Oscars for playing pimps, maids, servants, villains, etc. But now they’re on television, playing a multitude of confident, mostly successful characters.
Lee admits that stories and characters that reflect African-American culture are materializing more on television than in the movies. “If we are talking mainstream movies, I can agree with that,” he says. “I would like to see more real-life portrayals… Why can’t we see portrayals of some of our black farmers and their rural lifestyle? Why can’t we see more Cosby-like characters, but more multidimensional?
“It’s just that I would like to see a wider range of our experiences portrayed and not just rely on typical stereotypes,” Lee adds. If these shows keep getting more viewers, television may get bigger and blacker in no time.