Newer networks like Fox, the WB and UPN (which later merged to become The CW) capitalized on the new abundance of available black viewers for their late 90s programming, and initially shows like Martin, Girlfriends and Living Single brought in the kinds of ratings that could sustain their evening line-ups. But eventually the WB was gone, UPN was gone, FOX looked different, and the shows didn’t survive.
The New York Times writes that from 1997 to the year 2001, the number of successful black sitcoms had dropped from 15 to six. The last survivors included The Steve Harvey Show, Moesha, The Bernie Mac Show, The Parkers, The Jamie Foxx Show, Girlfriends and The Hughleys. Today, there is one to rule them all — Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which may eventually surpass The Jeffersons as the longest running black situation comedy in television history. Perry is also behind TBS’ For Better or Worse, but the steady disinterest in situation comedies altogether has proved to be especially devastating to black programs aiming for a mainstream or network audience.
The effort to revive the interest in these shows has been mildly successful on BET with The Game, Reed Between the Lines and Let’s Stay Together — and also on TBS with Perry’s shows, Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet? and animated Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show (though this doesn’t feature an all-black voice cast), but the fact that these are particularly niche cable channels can’t be ignored. The abundance of reality television — particularly the types of shows that have struck a chord with black audiences — has also proven to be a hindrance to the success of scripted black television.
There isn’t a clear remedy, but much of the fault lies in the lack of demand. Looking back, the black community was quick to unite around the need for change in the way we were portrayed. With the onslaught of the civil rights movement came the need for a shift in the way blacks were portrayed on television — and the networks were receptive to the criticism.
Through the 70s, what shows like The Jeffersons were able to convey were hopes, dreams and struggles to attain those things that signified our success. What The Cosby Show brought to the 80s and 90s was an unprecedented window into the black family like we’d never been seen before – as normal, for lack of better words.
And what we have on television today simply has not been able to ignite the same curiosity that keeps us interested in ourselves, and America interested in us, like we have done for the past three decades.