What happened to black family sitcoms on network TV?

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast, Season 1 (Chris Cuffaio/NBC Universal)

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast, Season 1 (Chris Cuffaio/NBC Universal)

There once was a story all about how his life got flipped, turned upside down, but scroll through current programming, and the Fresh Prince is merely a late night forget-me-not.

In the past, television networks featured a variety of dynamic, funny and emblematic African-American families on popular sitcoms.

The Huxtables, Coopers, Wayans, and Winslows, Martin and Moesha and their respective companies, entered living rooms around the country and demonstrated the prolific and multifarious character of American blackness.

From the wealthy to the middle class, nerdy to hip-hop cool, black sitcoms thrived in all their glory throughout the late 1980s and ’90s.

Nowadays, well, these familial faces are reruns, and the African-American family has primarily been segregated to cable channels like OWN and BET.

Meanwhile at least six new primetime comedies have been added to the network slate, all of which center on white families and barely even throw a black couple into the mix.

“I just saw a billboard for Sean Hayes’ new show, and it was like five white people, then there’s that one black person on the end smiling,” Loni Love, comedian and co-host of the daytime talk show The Real, tells theGrio. “We’re going back to that one black on the end. We’re being good. We’re shaking it up. We’re being diverse…There needs to be more than just one token.”

Networks shift focus back to white families

During her many years in the business, Love has traversed the Hollywood system from the sidelines to the full frame.

She’s watched the TV landscape evolve as urban channels like UPN, the WB and the CW folded or morphed into something new, leaving behind programming that brought many black comedians into the spotlight.

With the demise of such channels, black writers similarly dwindled and therein brought a problem for today’s market.

“It seems as if the major networks, they feel like the black sitcom isn’t getting the ratings,” Love comments. “When all of those networks left, a lot of the black writers left too…I had gotten my first deal with HBO. I couldn’t get one black female to write with me because they all wanted to try to get on a so-called white show. A lot of the black female writers at the time felt like if we went to a network, and it’s you and I, it’s going to be deemed a black show. Fast forward to 2013, now you have no black shows, and you have this lack of black families on television.”

From the ’80s to now, the changing field of television is particularly surprising considering the country finally put a black family in the White House.

Progression somehow got halted by an illusion that the world evened itself out.

This fall, the networks will introduce a long list of sitcoms, including The Millers, The Goldbergs, Trophy Wife, Mom, Dads, and Surviving Jack.

If the titles reek of Caucasian, that’s because pretty much all the characters on the shows are white.

Considering there are no new or existing shows featuring black relationships, the contrast appears striking. Even Wikipedia includes the decline of the black sitcom in its citation for the genre, noting, “In the early 2010s, black sitcoms have faded away on broadcast/network television.”

What gives?

“This industry, it’s so tight,” Love observes. “There are maybe five or six executives that can sell a show. If you don’t get in with one of them, you’re not going to get your project in to be able to pitch. And then there are certain networks, you look at CBS… They say that we’re not their demographic. Then you have NBC, who has tried a couple of things but they’re faltering. And then ABC, I don’t know what ABC’s doing. They’re just like whatever. Fox, if you don’t know anybody right now, if you’re not in, you can’t get anything done.”

The repetitive cycle of Hollywood

Also unlike the past, Love says studios will no longer take risks on new talent.

“Even on SNL there hasn’t been a black woman since Maya Rudolph,” she explains. “It’s like they must think ain’t no black female out there funny.”

For Bob Sumner, producer of BET’s Comic View and co-creator of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, the process of developing talent takes time. He agrees with Love that studios don’t want to give it.

“You keep seeing the same guys you already know over and over,” he says. “There’s some great talent out here that nobody’s taking advantage of…Remember when every time you turned around there was a great ensemble movie like a Friday, or House Party or Boomerang? We don’t even get that anymore.”

Nor are there pastiche cultural series such as A Different World, Living Single and In Living Color.

Family-driven comedies have become focused more on trending ideologies like gay marriage or single parenting.

“Because of the success of Modern Family, now every show is focusing on gays, which is cool but it’s like everybody’s trying to follow the next,” says Sumner. “There’s so much going on where it’s like America is all tied into one. So it really needs to be more, not just African-American visibility, but as a whole, we need to see more than just the George Lopez show.”

Love echoes that sentiment, commenting, “I feel sorry mostly for the Asians.”