The Broadcast Synthesis:
TV And African Americans
By The Early 1980s
Twice during the 1970s renewed black hopes for equitable treatment in television were crushed. At the beginning of the decade, the victory of white backlash and political conservatism—embodied in the election of Richard M. Nixon by the so-called Silent Majority—quickly subverted the Golden Age that had only begun to emerge. Again, at the end of the decade, rejuvenated expectations were destroyed when the two Roots miniseries failed to inspire a wave of serious dramatic programming, imitative but mature, featuring blacks in stories and roles that were not stereotypes.
Disappointment in the black creative community was keen. Actor-director Georg Stanford Brown expressed confusion when in 1979 he told Tony Brown's Journal, "I don't know. I have no answer because I've seen the representation of black people on all the series television as diminishing over the past three years." A year earlier, several black industry executives revealed their dismay. Stanley Robertson, a producer with Universal Television, complained that "because of the preponderance of comedy, the American people have got the idea that black people are funny ... except for Roots we haven't had the opportunity to see blacks get emotionally involved." Charles F. Johnson, a co-producer with The Rockford Files, lamented that "television to me is behind the times. There are so many prototypes who can serve as models for television."
For Yvonne Demery, an associate producer at Universal, the situation was also frustrating. "I'm not happy with the black image on television," she told an interviewer. "The image was successful so long as we were being laughed at in comedy," she continued, "we felt the public was ready to accept more.... Our life-style is not stereotypical of anything." And as late as mid-1981, the successful star Robert Guillaume, of Benson, could summarize changes in black TV representation since Roots with the remark, "The networks have a shameful record in portraying blacks in primetime. They portray blacks in stereotypical fashion or overlook their existence entirely in, say, a series set in midtown Manhattan."
The continuation of prejudicial practices in television was all the more exasperating because by the end of the 1970s blacks had fulfilled the most crucial criterion for video success: they represented a consumer market expending more than $70 billion annually on goods and services. With this much money to spend, the 24.1 million African Americans constituted a consumer market larger than most member states of the United Nations.' Such numbers might have been expected to generate more network respect.
Yet, traditionally racist patterns remained intact. While blacks still were quantitatively visible, the lack of quality in their roles persisted. Blacks continued to portray the loyal followers and supporters of great white heroes. Herb Jefferson, Jr. was a loyal pilot and Terry Carter was a dependable assistant on Lorne Greene's spacecraft in Battlestar Galactica and its later incarnation, Galactica: 1980. Richard Williams was one of several submarine crewmen in Man from Atlantis, Roger E. Mosely was Tom Selleck's loyal black assistant on Magnum, P.I., just as Aldine King was a loyal secretary on Project U.F.O.
Long used to such secondary roles, Greg Morris came to Vega$ as a police officer, but a colorless character compared to Robert Urich's attractive and dashing private eye, Dan Tanna. Other such ancillary roles included Cleavon Little on the ill-conceived Supertrain, Ji-Tu Cumbuka as a runaway slave on Young Dan'l Boone, and Madge Sinclair and Brian Mitchell as hospital employees on Trapper John, M.D. On Hill Street Blues, Michael Warren and Taurean Blacque played the requisite black policemen who occasionally were the focus of a subplot. And even with a steel claw for a hand, Ji-Tu Cumbuka as the menacing Torque was still only a muscular "man Friday" for Robert Conrad on A Man Called Sloane.
Blacks continued to enjoy their greatest acceptance when they appeared in comedy shows. The age of the New Minstrelsy survived Jimmy Carter and continued to flourish in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ted Lange was a comic bartender on The Love Boat. Samuel E. Wright was a street-wise cliché as a policeman named Turk on Enos. Tim Reid portrayed a cool and hip disk-jockey named Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati.
All the old stereotypes were there. The overbearing and emasculative mammy was not dead. Nell Carter revived that classic character, portraying a shrill policewoman on Lobo. And Shirley Hemphill on One in a Million took the stereotype into the boardroom of capitalistic America when she played a ghetto-dweller who suddenly became a millionaire executive of a large corporation.
The ranks of cute black children grew with the appearance of Kim Fields as the only black in a boarding school for girls on Norman Lear's Facts of Life. And the butler, another familiar black rendition, had his own series, Benson, as Robert Guillaume starred as a wise-but-funny manservant in a governor's mansion—a big white house on a hill.
Even in late-night comedy revues like Saturday Night Live and Fridays, black comics appeared as predictable characters. Although usually cast with more dignity on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris gained his greatest national attention by personifying a stupid Latino baseball player, Chico Escuela, whose broken-English answer to everything was "Baz-bol's bin berry berry goud to mi!" On the same show Eddie Murphy appeared usually in mocking skits set in Harlem or dealing with criminality. On the ABC series Fridays, Darrow Igus was most celebrated for his hip parody of a Jamaican cook, dressed like reggae singer Bob Marley, and stuffing all his Rastafarian recipes with plenty of ganja (marijuana).
The most offensive comedic stereotype, however, appeared in the winter of 1978 on Baby, I'm Back. In this series Demond Wilson portrayed Ray Ellis, a fancy wheeler-dealer who had deserted his wife (played by Denise Nicholas) and children seven years earlier, and now returned to rejuvenate his marriage. Here was black parental irresponsibility. Here was the black hustler, fancy dresser, sweet-talker, and gambler, all punctuated with approving responses from the laugh track. And Ellis—whom Lance Morrow described as "a feckless black creep"'—was all the more glib and attractive when compared to his wife's bumbling new boyfriend (Ed Hall), stiffly attired in his U.S. Marine officer's uniform.
In those instances when African Americans were the principal stars of network series, success was more fleeting. One of the more promising shows in 1980 was Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, a light drama about two private detectives. It gave Ben Vereen the opportunity to mix comedy and more serious characterization as a con man cum private eye. Although the product of Stephen J. Cannell whose other credits included The Rockford Files, the series was never serious enough to survive as a detective show, or humorous enough to be accepted as comedy.
Two of the more impressive actors from Roots, Louis Gossett, Jr. and James Earl Jones, also failed in serious dramatic shows in the fall of 1979. In The Lazarus Syndrome, Gossett portrayed a cardiologist, Dr. MacArthur St. Clair, in a medical series intent upon relevancy. Written and co-produced by William Blinn, who had won an Emmy for his writing in Roots, the program ambitiously sought to give Gossett a troubled married life, contacts with temptations that tested his personal honor, and involvement, according to one series official, "more with contemporary issues than with the disease of the week."'
Despite positive reviews, audiences seemed unwilling to accept a black heart surgeon and his human predicaments. The Lazarus Syndrome received poor ratings and was canceled after six broadcasts. It was replaced on ABC by Hart to Hart, a white detective program that completed the season with respectable ratings and continued in primetime for four more years. Further, another medical drama, Trapper John, M.D., premiered the same month as the Gossett series. It ended the 1979-1980 season as the twentieth most popular series with a 21.2 Nielsen rating and remained on CBS for another six TV seasons. The Lazarus Syndrome, however, earned only a 16.2 rating and was ranked sixty-fourth.
James Earl Jones, as Woodrow "Woody" Paris, portrayed a police captain with a lifestyle that included part-time university teaching and an understanding wife. Yet his series, Paris, was poorly received on CBS. For several reasons—most prominent among them the failure of the network to schedule or promote the series creatively—Paris was a disappointment for fans of James Earl Jones and a failure for CBS and MTM Enterprises, producers of the series. After being seen five times on Saturday evenings and six times on Tuesday evenings, with a four-week hiatus between these time slots, Paris was canceled. It ended the season with an average Nielsen rating of 12.7 and ranked ninety-second.
In such a disastrous series, however, one of the most powerful indictments of capital punishment in TV history occurred in an episode entitled "Dead Men Don't Kill." The episode was aired on December 4, 1979, and was written by Stephen Bochco, who later created the successful series Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. The story featured Georg Stanford Brown as a wrongly convicted prison inmate awaiting execution. Although Woody Paris discovered the prisoner's innocence, the state governor refused to halt the execution. Brown stunningly enacted the last moments in the prisoner's life as he sat strapped to a chair, eyes bulging, muscles tensed, agonizingly holding his breath and sweating profusely, then screaming his final exhalation as a cyanide capsule released its toxic injustice into the gas chamber.
There were other black-centered programs that fared as poorly as The Lazarus Syndrome and Paris. But many people had expected Roots to inspire at least one network series focusing—in the manner of The Waltons—on an African-American family and its struggle for survival. There were attempts at this goal. The first attempt was a made-for-TV film, A Dream for Christmas, that aired December 24, 1973. The film starred Hari Rhodes, Lynn Hamilton, and Clarence Muse. It was written by Earl Hamner, Jr., the man who drew from his own childhood to create and script The Waltons. The film was poorly received, however, and the project was abandoned.
Writer Melvin Van Peebles was involved in another effort to fashion a black Waltons. As a result of his impressive TV movie, Just an Old Sweet Song, Van Peebles with MTM Productions crafted two pilots for CBS, Kinfolks and Down Home. In both shows Robert Hooks and Madge Sinclair portrayed Nate and Priscilla Simmons, a husband and wife from the urban North who had recently moved their family to the South. Both projects were stillborn: Kinfolks was never televised, and Down Home received discouraging reviews when it aired in August 1978.
Critical reviews were was immaterial, however, to the search for a successful series spotlighting African-American family life. When Love Is Not Enough aired as a pilot film in June 1978, Variety declared it "a worthwhile family drama that deserves a chance to find an audience.... a straight representation of an appealing family unit would seem to be in order to balance the scales that have been veering toward caricature." This TV film told the story of a widower, played by Bernie Casey, who moved his large closely-knit family from Detroit to Los Angeles.
The following year this pilot begat the series, Harris and Company, again starring Casey. Again, the series received positive reviews. Variety, for example, called it a "straight and dignified representation of a black family unit ... with every indication that [it] could hold an audience." But with little promotion and apparently less concern about the fate of the program, NBC unceremoniously dropped four episodes of Harris and Company into its spring schedule and canceled the show. A sensitive family drama that needed network nurturing, it was scheduled ironically opposite The Waltons (ranked number thirty-seven that year), and Mork and Mindy (ranked number three). As expected, Harris and Company was a ratings disaster. Its average rating of 7.6—and ranking as number 112—made it the least-popular regular series for the entire 1978-1979 season.
The most ambitious attempt at producing a black Waltons, was Norman Lear's collaborative venture with author Alex Haley, Palmerstown, U.S.A. With the foremost employer of black TV actors working in cooperation with the creator of Roots, the series seemed certain to be a hit, or at least viable. The program focused on a black family and a white family living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. It dealt, certainly, with segregation and the virtual caste system then operative in the apartheid South. But it also treated general social problems—from men struggling to get ahead, to illicit love affairs.
In its limited run (five weeks) in the spring of 1980, Palmerstown, U.S.A. earned only moderate ratings.
The series reappeared the following spring for eleven weeks. Now with the shorter title, Palmerstown, the program sometimes dealt exclusively with problems of the white family, playing down or avoiding altogether the racial tension built into the format. By mid-1981, however, Palmerstown was an anachronism. With The Waltons canceled and with Roots relegated to the status of an edited-down afternoon movie, the optimistic energies which had created such a series were exhausted. In ratings that made Dallas, 60 Minutes, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Love Boat the top shows of the 1980-1981 season, there seemed to be little room for a rural melodrama with racial overtones.
As TV once more abandoned the color-free and bias-free promise it had made so many years before, it turned again to old models, to those well-worn stereotypes that the American entertainment industry had perpetuated for generations. On the popular miniseries, Backstairs at the White House, which aired in January 1979, Americans learned the personal secrets of their recent presidents through the eyes of the black maids, cooks, and butlers who worked in the presidential residence.
More virulent, however, was the miniseries, Beulah Land. A weak imitation of Gone with the Wind, the program was broadcast in three installments on October 7-9, 1980. This six -hour NBC epic was a Gothic romance set amid plantation life in the South before and after the Civil War. Even before the series was aired, producer David Gerber was the object of considerable controversy. Black organizations were particularly vociferous in calling for cancelation of the series or, at least, considerable moderation of its depiction of slave existence. Although Gerber considerably edited the final version, Beulah Land was filled with stereotyped embodiments of the "old folks at home." In his review for Variety, Morry Roth delineated the production distortions and network insensitivity in the program.
It is plainly insensitive to rub salt in the blacks' slavery wounds with this live cartoon version of history—no matter how correct. There is as much myth-making in history as there is in fiction, and the myths selected for this teleplay look tired and down-at-the heels. All of this "massa" talk and eye-rolling supplication may or may not be the way blacks acted then, but we have now read and seen enough to know that not all of the plantation South was cast out of white Dallas rejects or walking black symbols.
In chronological terms the space between Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah Land was considerable. But in terms of characterization, those decades appear to have produced little meaningful change. American television was not doing justice to blacks. There was no substantial difference between a medium of entertainment and information which offered minstrel show stereotypes mixed with an occasional serious story or supporting role, and network television by the early 1980s which offered comedy roles in quantity, but only on occasion delineated blacks in mature, respectful, and probating characterization.
As viewers and consumers, African Americans were ill-served by video. Studies confirmed that the medium continued to project images of individuals and families that were injurious to the self-image of black viewers, and misleading to non-black. In a real world where hundreds of thousands of African Americans had university educations, where minority aspirations for self-improvement were alert, and where a black bourgeoisie was a formidable entity, what was the significance of a situation where:
Blacks on television were found to be younger, leaner, funnier, and flashier. Economically, they were poorer, jobless or in jobs below the top echelons.... Black youngsters may see an imagery of desirable physical attributes but be disenchanted with the continuing low status features. White youngsters may learn to perceive blacks as buffoons who, by and large, stick to themselves, or else get lost in a white crowd.
And what did it suggest about U.S. broadcasting when a minority group that had achieved economic strength and constituted a powerful and desirable consumer market, was still unable to see itself portrayed honestly and intelligently on TV?
Even in the thirty-second and one-minute commercials which proliferated on the medium, the inequitable treatment of blacks continued. According to an African-American psychiatrist, Dr. Chester Pierce, TV commercials evidenced a destructive pattern of "subtle, stunning, often automatic and non-verbal exchanges which are put-downs of blacks by offenders." In one study, Pierce reported on the manner in which commercials reinforced the "never-ending burden" of racial disparagement found in TV. According to his conclusion,
Blacks are seen less frequently than animals.
Blacks never teach whites.
Blacks are seen eating more often than whites.
Blacks have fewer positive contacts with each other than whites have with each other.
Blacks have less involvement in family life.
Blacks more often work for wages and are nonprofessionals.
Blacks do not live in the suburbs.
Blacks entertain others.
Blacks never initiate or control actions, situations, or events.
Blacks evidence less command of technology.
Blacks have less command of space.
In all fairness, some programming at the end of this era was outstanding in the portrayal of African Americans. There were made-for-TV films that treated the historic, social, and cultural aspects of black life. In Don't Look Back, on ABC on May 31, 1981, Louis Gossett, Jr. played the celebrated pitcher, Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who became one of the first blacks to play major league baseball. Minstrel Man, on CBS on March 2, 1977, starred Glynn Turman and Stanley Clay, part of a black minstrel family coping with life in American show business in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Bittersweet memories of a childhood spent in rural racist Arkansas during the 1930s was the focus of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a CBS motion picture aired April 28, 1979. Based on the autobiography of actress-director-screenwriter Maya Angelou, it featured Constance Good as a young girl separated from her divorced parents (Roger E. Mosely and Diahann Carroll) and raised by a willful grandmother, portrayed by Esther Rolle.
The Southern racial experience was also the focus of Freedom Road, a poorly-received but conscientious filming of Howard Fast's novel about an emancipated slave elected to the South Carolina legislature following the Civil War. When it aired on NBC on October 29-30, 1979, Muhammad Ali starred as the freedman-senator who was exploited and abused by whites during the Reconstruction.
Public television acted responsibly in dignified series and film specials it aired during the age of the New Minstrelsy. William Miles, the renowned filmmaker, brought two singular documentaries to PBS. Men of Bronze centered on the "Harlem Hellfighters," the much-decorated black 369th Army Regiment which fought in World War I. I Remember Harlem was as much a personal remembrance as it was a four-hour treatment of the evolution of the New York City neighborhood during the twentieth century.
Short stories by Richard Wright and Ernest J. Gaines were produced in the PBS series American Short Story. Public television highlighted black music and dance in such special programs as Oscar Brown, Jr.'s From Jump Street series, various broadcasts in its SoundStage production, and With Ruby and Ossie.
In a single PBS broadcast, the dramatic creativity of Lorraine Hansberry was spotlighted in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, starring Ruby Dee. The World of My America featured writer-actress Pauline Myers in a one-woman show in which she played twenty-five roles covering two centuries of African-American experience. Only the Ball Was White was a filmed tribute to the great black baseball players who, because of their race, were barred from white-only major league baseball until the late 1940s. And A Bayou Legend was a PBS production of William Grant Still's celebrated opera.
From the old films of Paul Robeson, and James Earl Jones' one-man show on Robeson, to coverage of the 1980 and 1981 national conventions of the NAACP and Go Tell It ... Ben Hooks Reports, a news show hosted by the former FCC commissioner and later executive secretary of the NAACP, the public TV network compensated partially for irresponsible performance by the commercial networks.
PBS and a few made-for-TV films notwithstanding, into the 1980s there was no consistently mature response by television to African Americans. One answer might have been to abolish stereotypes and produce only complex, realistic images of blacks. Another response might have been to maintain stereotype programs, but offset their impact with an equal amount of dignified characterizations of blacks. Neither course of action, however, was taken by commercial television.
Some suggested that the only way television would act responsibly toward blacks was when minorities infiltrated the creative aspects—as writers, directors, producers, and top executives—of programming and turn their sensibilities into policies. But there were only slight inroads made in this direction. Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, for example, sought black writers for their programs. Illunga Adell was one of their earliest black writers for Sanford and Son. Other African-American writers in Hollywood included Lonne Elder III, Cecil Brown, Eric Monte, and China Clark. Yet as of 1981, the number of blacks writing for TV and motion pictures was small. Of the 5,569 members of the Writer's Guild that year, only 65 were black (1.2 percent); and of the 1,540 writers who earned a weekly salary, only 4 were black (0.26 percent). It was a situation which prompted Cecil Brown to conclude,
Hollywood, in essence, is afraid to see blacks for what they are. It is only the blacks who can tell their own story on screen. Whites cannot tell their story, and since the whites cannot and the blacks are not permitted to, the story has not been told.... we are all ultimately the victims of an electronic plantation mentality which filters out the real world and turns its characters into caricatures.
As it was with African American writers in TV, blacks had not reached influential positions in executive production capacities. The result was that, while they may have been seen on camera, black were still following orders and implementing policies made by Caucasian superiors. In the case of network TV news, this remained the case into the 1980s. Certainly, there were distinguished minority faces on the video screen. There were network news correspondents like Lem Tucker, George Strait, Carole Simpson, Jacqueline Adams, Emery King, and Sam Ford. Ed Bradley anchored the CBS Weekend News and co-hosted 60 Minutes. At ABC, Max Robinson was the only black anchorman in network weekday news. On PBS, Carl T. Rowan, the influential newspaper columnist, appeared regularly on political discussion shows; and Charlayne Hunter-Gault was a featured part of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. But behind the scenes, where corporate and program directions were fashioned, African Americans had little impact.
By the early 1980s, there was a growing concern among blacks that they had hit their peak in nonfiction TV, and that progress toward fully integrating television news would remain incomplete. According to an ABC News special Viewpoint, aired July 23, 1981, after more than a decade blacks had made little headway in reaching the upper echelons of network news. Of the nineteen senior-producer executive positions in network TV news, none was held by an African American. In fact, few blacks were even in line for such jobs. As of that date only twenty-eight of 625 employees (4.5 percent) in the network producer corps were black. Of this number, ten of 219 were at CBS (4.6 percent), six of 206 (2.9 percent) were at ABC, and approximately twelve of two hundred (6 percent) were at NBC. And of the total, the highest ranking was a news bureau chief, Frieda Williamson, employed by NBC in Chicago.
Several reasons might account for this imbalance. Most of the blacks who entered television in the late 1960s and 1970s were hired for the more glamorous roles on camera. As reporters and anchors in local news, or as correspondents in network news, those early recruits followed the quicker route to fame and large salaries. Stations and networks, eager to assuage hostile community representatives, also guided blacks away from executive positions and toward on-camera roles because that was what black pressure groups seemed to want. During those years of demanding equal treatment in TV, minority special interest and lobbying organizations pushed for employing African Americans in highly visible capacities. The result, however, robbed blacks of involvement in exactly that aspect of TV news where power exists.
Other figures suggest that more than short-sighted decisions in the late 1960s and 1970s account for the contemporary frustration felt by blacks in television news. Had the networks really desired to integrate their operations, African Americans would have been hired specifically for executive operations. Further, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the report on Viewpoint, there was no appreciable increase in the number of blacks reporting the news on network TV. Although the total number of reporters rose, there remained only eighteen or twenty black network correspondents. New minority reporters were being hired essentially as replacements for those who left for other jobs. To some, this suggested an overt pattern of racial discrimination. In the words of Renee Poussaint, a black anchorwoman at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.,
I think it's a function of this society. I think that broadcast journalism is a reflection of the whiter society. The whiter society has certain racist patterns that are repeated in our industry.
The history of blacks in American television continued to be one of honorable promises and noble intentions, constantly compromised by realities of the commerce and prejudice. Above all, TV is a business. Although only fifteen of the 726 independently-operated commercial stations were owned by the three networks, they exerted an enormous influence on the overall nature of the medium. And ABC, NBC, and CBS were three large capitalistic corporations all intent on making money and rewarding their investors.
Despite the honorable declarations, the bottom line in this multi‑billion dollar industry remained making money. Some called it greed. Lawrence K. Grossman, the president of PBS, argued in 1978 that greed was the motor force of television. "Greed is what runs TV, the avaricious pursuit of ratings, the insane battle to be No. 1, the lust for even higher profits," he contended. This hectic picture was affirmed by the president of NBC-TV, Robert E. Mulholland, when he claimed that "in competing for audiences, the networks right now are in the most frantic horserace since Ben Hur. Win, place or show, the results are no longer predictable from season to season."
Perhaps in this stressful atmosphere it was unrealistic to have expected commercial television to be fair to minority Americans while serving the demands of its predominately white mass audience, as measured by the Nielsen ratings. Television utilizes the public airwaves, it may be argued, hence the necessity to serve the people—all the people. But until the 1980s TV was a medium of broadcasting. It aimed broadly, at the largest viewership possible. Moral concepts such as "Conscience," "Obligation," "Fairness," and "Trust" might have been operative during obscure hours in the video day, but in primetime—where the meaningful ratings are obtained, where advertising rates are the highest and profits are maximized—the competitive nature of U.S. broadcasting mitigated against programming not intended to deliver the largest possible audiences.
Certainly, the general public was at fault. If network television still preferred the minstrel comics and stereotyped black subordinates, was it not because most Americans, specifically non-black Americans, found more enjoyment in stereotyped characterizations than they did in respectful images of African-American men and women? If Uncle Toms, coons, mammies, and pickaninnies still flourished, was it not because the audience served by network video still liked this racial minority presented in the recognizable, minstrel-show style? Was it not comforting to the majority race to believe that the minority was filled with simpletons, servants, and inferiors?
But the networks must share the censure. Since the 1940s they had forged and perfected a monopoly of the public airwaves. It was their corporate decision-makers who worked to limit the number of channels, to fashion a national video system that undermined local and regional initiatives, to dominate that nationwide industry with an ever-narrower range of program choices. The networks had the power to change matters for the better, but in the name of sponsors and stockholders they resisted until pressure from the restive public and government necessitated improvement.
The television industry could continue to proclaim its noble intentions. As late as July 1981, for example, Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, appeared on Viewpoint and told the world that his network sincerely desired to bring African Americans into the business. "The power of television today in our society is so immense and so all-pervasive," he explained, "that conscious efforts must be made to allow all the groups in society to participate in this instrument." Here, a one-third of a century after national television emerged, Arledge employed empty rhetoric long familiar to African Americans seeking fairness: "None of us ever wants to fall back on the argument that blacks aren't qualified, and so what we have to do is set up the mechanism that allows blacks to be qualified so that the argument doesn't even come up."
By the end of the 1981-1982 season, a new balance had been achieved for blacks in network broadcasting. African-American participation was now synthesized somewhere between the expanding and honest involvement of the Golden Age, and the exclusion that was inherent, if not completely realized, in the racial backlash of the 1970s. Significantly, by the early 1980s there were few tangible reasons to expect improvements in this condition.
Blacks remained a visible and strategic part of television comedy. As well as those who continued in series such as The Jeffersons, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Diff’rent Strokes, there were several notable comics in familiar characterizations. Nell Carter, whose shrieking and intimidating performance was a mainstay of Lobo, now took her mammy characterization to Gimme a Break, where she portrayed the hip and sassy housekeeper of a white father and his two motherless daughters. A former professional football player and star of several commercials for Miller Lite beer, Bubba Smith appeared as a comedic night manager in an all-night grocery store on Open All Night. On Benson, Robert Guillaume's central character ceased being a butler, and became a government bureaucrat—but still within a humorous context of wisecracks and put-downs.
In the often-revised Saturday Night Live comedy revue on NBC, Eddie Murphy scored well in two minstrel roles. In his parody of Buckwheat, the wiry-haired pickaninny in the Our Gang comedies of the 1930s, Murphy delivered monologues in childish pidgin English while wearing a minstrel-show fright wig. Even more questionable were his spoofs of TV commercials in which he appeared as a black pimp, Velvet Jones, peddling books on how to train and discipline whores. With a sign for the Velvet Jones School of Technology over his shoulder, the wigged Murphy in broken English told his audience on the telecast of November 7, 1981,
Due to the overwhelmin' response to my last book entitled, I Want to Be a Ho, there is yet another high-payin' job in demand. Hi, I'm Velvet Jones. Are you a male high school dropout between the ages of 18 and 42? Do you have three or more gold teef in front of you' mouf? Do you like flashy clothes, big cars, and like kickin' wimmen in the butt? If so, stop doin' all these things fo' free. Because thanks to me, Velvet Jones, you too in six short weeks can be taught to be a high-payin' pimp.
That's right, it's a well-known fact that a good pimp can make up to $250,000 a year. And just think, because it's off the books, you can still get your welfare checks. Sound too good to be true? It is. And basically all you do is drive around in a big pink Cadillac, kick wimmen in the butt, and take their money.
Sound simple? It is when you know how. Just send for my new book entitled, I Want to Drive a Big Pink Cadillac, Wear Diamond Rings, and Kick Women in the Butt. In it you'll find all the latest in clothes and special leg exercises you can use, so when you kick your ho's, they know you mean business. If you order now, I'll throw in absolutely free this pamphlet called "12 Easy Ways to Stomp a Ho." Here's how to order: Rush $83.95 to I Want to Drive a Big Pink Cadillac, Wear Diamond Rings, and Kick Women in the Butt.
Blacks were virtually excluded from starring roles in dramatic series in the 1981-1982 season. There were, however, several strategic castings. Moses Gunn had a sensitive supporting part in Father Murphy. The Procter and Gamble soap opera Another World brought African-American characters firmly into the story lines. In the continuing series Hill Street Blues, black characters increasingly appeared in mature representations, yet such roles usually involved seamy images of crime, poverty, and brutality.
One of the most innovative uses of black talent occurred on Fame. Patterned after the hit motion picture of the same name, Fame presented stories of gifted and ambitious high school students—white, black, and Latino—coping with personal problems and the academic demands of the School of the Arts in New York City. Starring Erica Gimpel, Gene Anthony Ray, and Debbie Allen (who also choreographed the dance routines), the program offered an inventive blend of sensitive human drama and colorful musical and modern dance productions. Still, with its emphasis on themes of student discipline, self-improvement, sacrifice, and the will-to-succeed, Fame reflected the conservative social and political mood of the early 1980s.
The few other series spotlighting blacks seemed to have been cast by affirmative action officers sensitive to minority quotas. In Strike Force, Dorian Harewood played a black plainclothes policeman operating within a specially-trained unit headed by Robert Stack and including one white woman and two other white men. In exactly the same ratio, 3:1:1 —a casting formula first popularized by Mission: Impossible more than a decade earlier—on Today's FBI, Harold Sylvester portrayed a black FBI agent, part of a team headed by Mike Connors, and including two other white men and one white women.
Ironically, minority success in one area of entertainment, professional sports, began in 1982 to threaten their appearance on television. When the chief scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates announced that his baseball team had to recruit young white players because "we're not going to be able to play nine blacks," he was speaking of the loss of support by white sports fans when open competition results in the domination of a professional team by black (Latino players being considered black by fans) players.
This pattern has been most keenly felt by the National Basketball Association. The NBA was 7 percent black in the 1955-1956 season; it was 74 percent black in 1982, and 80 percent of the league's starters were black. In the NBA All-Star game in 1956 there was only one minority player, but in the game in 1982 twenty-one of the twenty-four players were African American. As a result of this racial reality, fan attendance and TV viewership and revenues began to diminish. For the 1982-1983 season, CBS announced a television schedule which relegated NBA coverage "almost exclusively to springtime playoff games."
The condition of blacks in television by the 1981-1982 season caused Ebony magazine to question whether or not African Americans were being forgotten by white-owned and white-oriented TV. In an article entitled "Has TV Written Off Blacks?" Charles L. Sanders painted a distressing picture of black participation in the most popular medium of entertainment and information. He quoted Charles Floyd Johnson, a black producer with credits on The Rockford Files and the NBC series Bret Maverick. In Johnson's view, TV has abandoned African Americans—except as comedians, historical figures, and sub-characters because "the people who put up the enormous sums of money to make TV series don't believe they can make profits by casting Blacks in any other way—especially in serious, Black-oriented dramas."
The situation was not totally bleak for African Americans in the new TV season. There continued to be major achievements in PBS programming. PBS devoted the premier program in its intelligent series Creativity with Bill Moyers to Maya Angelou and her ambivalent memories of growing up in rural Arkansas. Impressive, too, were two dramatic productions. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf was Ntozake Shange's profound "choreopoem" about the pains and triumphs of life as a black woman. And Yaphet Kotto and Bernie Casey probed an area seldom explored in television drama, African-American revolutionaries, in A House Divided: Denmark Vesey's Rebellion—a character study of the former slave who in 1822 attempted through armed uprising to free the slaves in Charleston, South Carolina.
Also on PBS, black musicians and singers continued to appear on the performance series, SoundStage. Contemporary black social and political problems were probed with regularity on network news and informational programs. And Tony Brown's Journal inaugurated its return to PBS with an interview with President Ronald Reagan. Typical of producer Tony Brown's provocative style, however, the second program in the series investigated the relationship between Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad and slain black nationalist spokesman Malcolm X.
On commercial network TV, there were several notable developments related to blacks. Newscasters Bryant Gumbel and Ed Bradley earned distinction in their craft, Gumbel as a new anchorperson on NBC's Today show, and Bradley as a correspondent on 60 Minutes and as a reporter on several significant documentaries. Cicely Tyson appeared in yet another historic role, this time as Chicago school teacher Marva Collins, battling insensitive bureaucrats and skeptical parents to teach her ghetto pupils. In The Marva Collins Story, seen on CBS on December 1, 1981, Tyson not only struck a familiar chord with her return to biographical drama, but her portrayal of Collins refusing to take government funds and attacking governmental regulations and bureaucracy clearly tied this made-for-TV film to the anti-regulatory and anti-government ideology of the Reagan presidency.
Few television dramas featuring black characters have been as humanly moving and racially unexploited as Sister, Sister, aired June 7, 1982 on NBC. Written by Maya Angelou, this made-for-TV film drew from many standard black social institutions—religion, civil rights, family, and the return to ancestral roots in the South. But Sister, Sister was primarily a mature drama about three adult sisters, affected in differing ways by the memory of their stern deceased father, who are reunited when one of the sisters returns after years to their family house in a small Southern town.
As portrayed by Diahann Carroll and Irene Cara, with Rosalind Cash as the sister returning from Detroit, the women fought, rejoiced, rejected, and recollected, all within the bonds of sisterhood. Although there were men in their lives, it was the relationship between sisters and the mystique of family—all sisters and all families—which were scrutinized in this singular presentation.
Notable among the few deviations in network primetime TV in the new season was an explosive miniseries, The Sophisticated Gents. Seen on NBC over three evenings, September 29 and 30, and October 1, 1981, it starred an array of talented actors in the story of a reunion of men who grew up together and last were together twenty-five years earlier. Among the stars of this production were Ron O'Neal, Robert Hooks, Roosevelt Grier, Bernie Casey, Thalmus Rasulala, Paul Winfield, Dick Anthony Williams, and Raymond St. Jacques. The teleplay was written by and also starred Melvin Van Peebles.
Certainly, the "gents" had evolved into middle-class achievers not generally seen in television productions. One was a successful politician, another an internationally-known singer, still another was a college professor. Only Van Peebles' character, a pimp, was a stereotyped role. The others lived in pleasant homes with wives and children.
But what made The Sophisticated Gents an iconoclastic television experience was the sexuality—especially the interracial sexuality—which marked the production. Included in the program were two graphic bedroom scenes between a black man and a white woman. There was also black homosexuality and interracial marriage and kissing in the miniseries. Van Peebles admitted that he considered the program the TV equivalent of his revolutionary movie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which in 1971 broke conventions by projecting a black man as a sensual, rebellious, aggressive urban hero—a film that ended with the warning, emblazoned across the screen in large letters, "A BAADASSSSS NIGGER IS COMING BACK TO COLLECT SOME DUES."
While The Sophisticated Gents lacked the overtly rebellious quality of Van Peebles' cinematic achievement, the miniseries was unprecedented on TV. Even NBC seemed cautious with the program, since it had been completed more than two years before it was telecast. In terms of attracting viewers, however, the production did poorly. It earned an average 11.1 rating and a 19.0 share—this compared to the 23.2 and 36 gained earlier by Beulah Land, and the 32.6 and 51 earned a year earlier by Shogun. In fact, the only miniseries in the 1980-1981 season to fare worse than Sophisticated Gents were reruns of Beggarman, Thief and Roots: The Next Generations, the latter producing a dismal 7.0 rating and a 15 share.
As with much in the history of blacks in white television, the situation in which African Americans found themselves by the 1981-1982 season was a reflection of broader social and political attitudes in the society at large. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency brought to power a man and a philosophy intent upon curtailing governmental activity in social matters. In the Reagan view, federal intervention destroyed individual initiative. This thwarted business, hampered the rights of states and localities, and compromised the values to which the United States has always given lip service. With Reagan's new federalism came a dismantling of social service agencies and drastic cut backs in federal funding for those agencies, both state and federal, that managed to survive. Added to that were increasing unemployment and economic disarray felt most keenly in black communities, and a lack of African-American political power within the new administration, since Reagan was elected with little black support.
There was also a rising wave of racial intolerance in the nation at this time. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed renewed popularity. The incidence of racial violence increased. And the sagging national economy promised only more aggravation. These themes were communicated most forcefully in two network documentaries in late 1981. An ABC News Closeup, "Wounds from Within," sought to understand this new "emerging pattern of racial attacks around the country." It focused on the KKK and its hate campaign against Vietnamese fishermen along the Gulf Coast in Texas. It treated the torching of a synagogue in Southern California by members of the American Nazi party. And it reported on two acts of violence against blacks: the bombing of a suburban home in the San Francisco area, and the senseless slaying of a fourteen-year-old girl by a white boy only two years her senior.
"Wounds from Within" was aired on October 18, and indicated that such acts of violence were occurring "at a time when many sensed a new, general mood of rancor toward minorities." It suggested that by this date a strange twist had developed in the way many perceived the civil rights issue. From approval in the 1960s through suppression in the 1970s, the program now suggested that the "legislation and affirmative action that came out of the great civil rights struggles of the sixties had produced a curious backfire: a bitter sense among a number of hard-pressed whites that they were now the oppressed minority."
Starker still was an NBC White Paper entitled, "America—Black and White," which was televised on September 9. This ninety-minute study of racial attitudes in contemporary society was one which narrator Garrick Utley called "a story too few whites pay attention to today." It dealt with racial anger precipitated in a New York City suburb because of the integration of schools. It focused also on apparent discrimination at the University of North Carolina. From Los Angeles, Detroit, and elsewhere "America—Black and White" offered a dismal look at American realities. And there was something depressing and nostalgic of the earliest days of the civil rights movement when a black female student at Davidson College in North Carolina sadly rebuked a white fellow student:
You'll never know what it's like to watch your children or your parents not be able to reach their goals. You'll never know what it's like to see them so frustrated they give up and leave you. You'll never have a part of your human dignity taken because of your color. And that's what it's like to be black.
Even more sobering was Utley's final comment in which he noted that for most blacks "that elusive thing called the American Dream" was still "an impossible dream." According to Utley, "205 years since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, 119 years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and seventeen years since Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, America still remains in many ways two nations, black and white." It was a bleak situation fully understood through a study of the history of African Americans in television.
Once a great promise of equality and a catalyst for positive social change, TV by the early 1980s seemingly ceased to play a constructive role in the improvement of racial understanding in the United States. Certainly, there were exceptions to the rule. But in general, television had surrendered its social initiative. It had returned to the safer and more profitable utilization of ethnic stereotypes and inoffensive social rhetoric. As late as 1982, one influential white TV critic could applaud the stereotypes in the NBC series, Gimme a Break, and conclude,
Nell [Carter] is black, built like a medicine ball, and emphasizes her lines by tossing her enormous torso from side to side. ... Oddly, blacks have become the last ethnics in popular entertainment. In radio days, ethnic types were rampant: Charlie Chan, Parkyakarkas, The Mad Russian ... but the immigrant generation disappeared.. . . Black people, maybe because they didn't melt into the pot so readily, kept some of their folkways and speech styles—with a lot of help from screenwriters. Anyway, I guess it's a sign that we have all loosened up on a touchy matter that a black person can be cast as a household domestic.
At the same time, the distinguished producer of Roots and Roots: The Next Generations, David L. Wolper, could admit TV's shortcomings and call upon the industry to use its most popular programs "to transmit ideas of a socially significant nature." Recalling that more than a quarter-billion viewers throughout the world learned of slavery through the Roots miniseries, Wolper suggested that by introducing relevant themes into shows such as Magnum P.I., The Love Boat, Dallas, and Laverne and Shirley, television "can significantly elevate the knowledge and enrich the lives of the entire population of this country."
Between these two possibilities—the glorification of minstrel conventions and the use of TV as an educative social force—the history of blacks in television had evolved. It had been a story both of significant accomplishments and of massive insensitivity and neglect. But after four decades of promises and platitudes, it seemed clear that little more could be accomplished—either effectively or profoundly—to advance the participation of blacks in white TV unless the industry were radically rearranged.
It was not enough to demand or plead for reconsideration. Persuasion did not work. Anticipating changes of the heart or corporate contrition for racial sins was likewise unrealistic. Instead, lasting improvement could occur only if fundamental changes were made in the way television operated in the United States. TV had to serve black Americans because it financially needed them, not because it was supposed to be fair. And this could occur only through the destruction of broadcasting—with its scarcity of channels and its network monopoly—and the restructuring of the medium as a narrowcast entity with scores, even hundreds, of stations serving the diverse audiences that comprise the American people. Importantly, U.S. television since the early 1980s has begun to realize this prescription for social progress.