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Ghettoization of Race on TV

Earlier this month Kerry Washington’s appearance on Saturday Night Live kicked off yet another brouhaha about TV being too white — a controversy as old as the medium.

The reason the racial makeup of who appears on screen never seems to change despite the fact that the nation is becoming more diverse, is that TV has always had a separate but equal mentality towards this problem.

Washington and Jay Pharoah as Michelle and President Obama on SNL

TV’s solution for minority representation is to create shows and networks for specific ethnic groups. This is playing out right now. In order to gain the FCC’s approval for its merger with NBC, Comcast agreed to add more minority owned networks to its lineup (the idea being that such networks will cater to minority audiences).

The result is networks owned by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Robert Rodriguez, and Magic Johnson.

I call this “separate but equal” because rather than deal with the race problem on its flagship shows and networks — notably NBC — Comcast’s attitude is to push the problem off onto new cable channels that will likely go bust, or at the least, never really have much of an impact.

A potential breakout series coming to Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network

We’ve been here before many times. There is no shortage of cable networks that target specific ethnic groups (as well as gender and sexual orientation) — including many defunct ones. And they all fail for the same reason: original content. Most of what these networks do is rerun decades old shows.

And as you’ve probably guessed, this is exactly what the new crop of Comcast networks will be doing. Magic Johnson’s network will feature fresh new shows like Soul Train and The Flip Wilson Show (I bet you had to Google that last one).

Of course I cannot blame anyone for having to lean so hard on reruns. Original scripted TV shows are expensive to produce. It leaves these networks in a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Nobody is going to watch them unless they have original content, but original content requires a large base of viewers producing ad revenue to fund its creation.

Just consider how long AMC was around until it could get to the point that it could release shows like Mad Men. And in case there is any doubt of how hard it is to launch a new network, Oprah’s OWN has had a pretty rocky start. If her network can barely make it, Robert Rodriguez really has his work cutout for him.

The way in which we segregate our TV networks, though, predates cable. Before cable TV was big, the solution to diversity was to have shows that targeted a minority group.

One example would be the original The Arsenio Hall Show, which was essentially a late night show for African Americans. It not only prominently featured African American entertainers who had never appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (or only once), such as Chris Rock, M.C. Hammer, Danny Glover and Ice-T, it had controversial black guests like Louis Farrakhan (just imagine the reaction if Carson had him on his show).

To be fair, Farrakhan had a long standing feud with Ed McMahon

And for a more modern day example of shows that very specifically target an ethnic group, there’s Tyler Perry’s TV empire.

Now let me just be clear that I have nothing against TV shows or networks that cater to a specific ethnic group; my issue is that while they do provide counter programming, they don’t solve the problem of TV’s biggest shows and networks being all white — they’re not helping to make TV more inclusive.

Now we cannot blame all of this on the executives and producers. TV is market driven — it gives viewers what they want. So we’re all partially to blame for the lack of diversity. SNL never having more than a token black actor or two has never hurt its ratings. If data showed that ratings could be boosted by having a more diverse cast, I’m confident there would be changes.

But TV shouldn’t wait for ratings dips to make changes — it’s pretty cynical to be reactive rather than proactive on this matter. It’s a bit sad that after all of these years, Star Trek and its spinoffs remain way ahead of TV on this matter. 

Oh Myyy….
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