Toward a New Relationship
in the Age of Cable
Were such negative projections the most plentiful minority images on television, there would be little hope for improvement of African-American representation. But there have been developments in television that cautiously augur well for the future, indications that some industry executives understand that the new video order has made the old racial prejudices counterproductive. This is not to suggest that the response of television to African Americans has been quick or sufficient or equitable; the mentality that excluded and stereotyped the race for so long still dominates the industry. Nonetheless, the pattern of black representation emerging since the late 1980s suggests that U.S. television is becoming racially more responsible.
One indication of such change is noticeable in new, positive stereotypes that have appeared. Popular entertainment will never abandon stereotypes. They are shorthand theatrical devices that quickly inform an audience about a character. Stereotypes may be oversimplified and unrealistic, but they need not be negative. Only historical circumstances caused abusive characterization to be employed as a weapon of oppression. Negative racial stereotypes served the economic, social, political, moral, and cultural conditions of the people who created and accepted them. Such distortions explained reality to the ignorant and justified the repression of an entire race.
That American television and society might be shedding these disreputable old ways was evident by the success of an unusual characterization: the handsome and virile black hero. Rugged black champions were first manifest on TV in the late 1960s when the likes of Bill Cosby on I Spy, Clarence Williams III on The Mod Squad, and Otis Young on The Outcasts engaged viewers. But these types soon disappeared, and except for a few characters like Richard Roundtree's underdeveloped John Shaft and several loyal sidekicks in the 1970s, these attractive men disappeared for more than a decade.
Since the mid-1980s, however, TV has highlighted an array of black action heroes who have been as handsome, intelligent, and daring as any Caucasian champion. While they have not been as plentiful as their white counterparts, their undiminished appearance has constituted a meaningful departure from earlier projections of African-American manhood. Among these breakthrough performers have been Billy Dee Williams as the suave husband of Diahann Carroll's imperious Dominique Devereaux during the 1986-1987 season of Dynasty—Carl Weathers portraying a muscular special investigator in Fortune Dane—Blair Underwood as a perceptive young lawyer on L.A. Law—Howard Rollins, Jr. playing a skilled police detective and sensitive family man on In the Heat of the Night—Mario Van Peebles as an energetic private eye on Sonny Spoon—Denzel Washington cast as a serious-minded medical intern in St. Elsewhere—Louis Gossett, Jr. as a university professor who solves crimes in Gideon Oliver—and Avery Brooks as an enigmatic private detective dedicated to justice on both Spenser: For Hire and his own series, A Man Called Hawk.
For all their physical magnetism, however, none of these characters approached the human sensuality generated by Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs on Miami Vice. Bedecked in the latest European fashions, Tubbs solved crime with stylish panache. He was cool and correct under stress, slick and self-confident when in action. Tubbs was sexually primed, too, attracting and attracted to beautiful women of all races. On occasion, his passionate love scenes—especially with Pam Grier in a series encounter in 1985, and in a return visit in 1989—shattered traditional video depictions of African-American virility.
Still, dramatic shows headed by African-American heroes constitute only a small proportion of the TV dramas produced since the mid-1980s.
More typically, the practice has been to cast blacks as supporting characters within the constricted range of network program types offered to American viewers: in action-adventure shows such as China Beach and Tour of Duty; in crime series such as Hill Street Blues, The Trials of Rosie O'Brien, Law and Order, and Matlock; and in other "profession" dramas like WIOU, Hotel, and St. Elsewhere. But even this utilization is not without racial consequences. While African-American actors appeared prominently in most military series—from Yaphet Kotto as tough U.S. Army drill instructor Sgt. James "China" Bell on For Love and Honor and Robert Hooks as U.S. Navy Captain Jim Coleman in Supercarrier, to LeVar Burton as Lt. Geordi La Forge, a blind spaceship navigator in the twenty-fourth century on Star Trek: The Next Generation—they appear less frequently in stories centering on romance and family.
While they always are cast in urban crime shows, it is usually as lawbreakers or in secondary roles such as John Amos portraying police Captain Dolan for one season of Hunter, Steven Williams as the tolerant police captain, Adam Fuller, guiding a quartet of young officers on 21 Jump Street, and Richard Brooks as assistant district attorney Paul Robinette on Law and Order. There were even a few black singing policemen on the crime-musical series Cop Rock.
While fewer and less central than their male counterparts, when given the opportunity black women have produced strong and attractive characterizations in dramatic series. Impressive portrayals could be found in the steadfast wife and helpmate played by Anne-Marie Johnson on In the Heat of the Night, and the reliable police detective that Olivia Brown enacted on Miami Vice. Daphne Maxwell Reid portrayed Micki Dennis, the head of the protocol office of the U.S. State Department, who helped her professor husband (played by her real-life husband, Tim Reid) to solve crimes on Snoops. Alfre Woodard's depiction of a dedicated, respected physician on St. Elsewhere also widened the boundaries of black performance, as did the quiet sensitivity in Madge Sinclair's Emmy-winning role as a restaurant owner and love interest for James Earl Jones in Gabriel's Fire. While Diahann Carroll's portrait of the devilishly self-centered Dominique may not have been a praiseworthy calling, in her short reign on Dynasty she was the equal of the other femmes fatales who for years enchanted audiences on the prime-time serials.
Perhaps the most authoritative role for a black actress in recent television was Holly Robinson's enactment of the savvy police investigator Judy Hoffs on the Fox series, 21 Jump Street. As the only woman in a foursome of undercover officers fighting youth crimes, Robinson's character combined flexibility and fortitude with a womanly understanding that was especially evident when dealing with troubled teenage girls.
Such consistently mature representation of African Americans was new to prime time in the latter half of the 1980s. Interestingly, it had been a part of daytime TV since the early 1970s. Although black characters usually remained only a short while in soap opera story lines, daytime serials provided minority actors an important training ground that prepared newcomers and reintroduced established performers.
Among those who passed through soaps on their way to prominence in the 1980s were Phylicia Rashad (One Life to Live), Jackee Harry (Another World), and Howard Rollins, Jr. (Another World). Veteran black actors who played in soaps during this period included Sammy Davis, Jr. (General Hospital), Adolph Caesar (Guiding Light), Brock Peters (The Young and the Restless), and Lola Falana (Capitol). Importantly, into the 1990s daytime serials continued to showcase aspiring black talent. Among the apprentice stars appearing in contemporary soaps were Nathan Purdee, Toyna Lee Pinkins, and Victoria Rowell on The Young and the Restless, Amelia Marshall and Vince Williams of Guiding Light, and Stephanie Williams on General Hospital.
Although most African Americans in soap operas played secondary figures who filtered in and out of the lives of white central characters, they were not portrayed as racial stereotypes. Many such characters experienced the same exhilaration and anguish familiar to white characters. Be it a wedding, divorce, or adoption, be it love or hate or insincerity, the soaps afforded black characters the opportunity to feel the passions of adult life. On All My Children Darnell Williams' popular character, Jesse Hubbard—a reformed street punk turned policeman and loving husband—was murdered in 1988, and his widow Angie (played by Debbi Morgan) was left a shattered woman until she became romantically involved with a white lover, a relationship soon called into question when a black businessman moved into her life. Going one step further, General Hospital in 1988 created the first interracial marriage in soap history when black pediatrician Simone Ravelle (played by Laura Carrington) became the bride of white psychiatrist, Tom Hardy. Significantly, the story line was not quickly killed, and the twosome was allowed to face the exaggerated problems of marriage that must confront all soap opera couples.
Compared to racial minorities, however, whites still dominate the genre, and striking examples of black characterization should not obscure the fact that the soaps remained racially imbalanced. As the executive producer of Days of Our Lives justified it in 1989, "I don't feel the solution is to impose a 'minority' story on the viewer; by that I mean something that forces an issue." And the executive producer of General Hospital, Wes Kenney, explained that "most minorities on soaps are in minor roles," because of their rootlessness in stories where the core families are Caucasian. According to him,
They do some interacting with major characters, but you don't really know much about them as individuals.... I think we've seen great progress on television, but there is still great prejudice. It's hard to have a relationship between two characters of different races and not have race be an issue. We have a long way to go before we have something like that as the norm.
A survey conducted by Soap Opera Digest in 1989 left little doubt that daytime serials remained biased in their utilization of racial minorities. Assigning grades to the leading soaps for their depiction of African Americans and Latinos, the magazine felt the series performed as follows:
|All My Children:||A|
|As the World Turns:||B|
|Days of Our Lives:||B|
|Days of Our Lives:||B|
|The Young and |
|One Life to Live:||C|
|The Bold and |
Directly confronting the racial disparity in soap operas, NBC launched a new serial, Generations, in March 1989. This program revolved around three generations of two core Chicago families: the white Whitmore and the black Marshall clans. It was the first time African Americans were built directly into the foundation of a daytime series. According to Sally Sussman, creator and head writer for the program, because the Marshalls were germane to the premise of Generations, blacks would no longer be short-lived or secondary characters. "We're writing about the reality of life. Reality of life in Chicago includes black families." Sussman noted, "This is a soap for the 1990s. This isn't about a trend or writing appropriate stereotypes. This is about people. I think it's the next step in soaps."
To actress Lynn Hamilton, the series promised new dimensions in theatricality. "We haven't had the opportunity to do well-rounded roles, where you see generations of people so you can get the feeling of their humanity and their hopes and dreams and their negatives and positives." She continued,
Usually we just get one side of the story. That's why I think Generations is going to make a big difference in our social behavior. Television is a powerful medium. It's crazy, but some people actually believe what they see on that little tube. I've always felt that television has tremendous responsibility.
Although Generations did return several prominent black actors to the TV screen—among them Joan Pringle from Room 222 and The White Shadow, and Taurean Blacque from Hill Street Blues—it failed to generate viewer sufficient interest. First, it was poorly scheduled. As a half-hour serial in a universe of hour-long soaps, it appeared in New York City and much of the East Coast at 12:30 PM opposite the CBS blockbuster, The Young and the Restless—the top-rated soap on television, and the leading soap opera with black viewers. In Chicago it was aired at 12:30 PM opposite ABC's highly-rated All My Children, a serial noted for its popular African American characters, and CBS The Bold and the Beautiful with its lily-white story line.
Moreover, Generations was afforded little chance to attract a loyal audience. According to Mimi Torchin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Weekly magazine, "A new show always gets off to a slow start. They're always terrible in the beginning. Until you are in these people's lives, know the background, it's hard to get involved until you care about them." Where the customary incubation period for a new serial has been two years, Generations was canceled in January 1991 after thirteen months. As an NBC executive justified the move, "It was the lowest-rated soap opera on the air. It had the smallest audience; it didn't deliver for advertising and it wasn't attractive to affiliates." But as Torchin explained it, "It was known as 'the black soap' in the heartland. There's still a lot of racism and whether it was racism per se, there was resistance." Significantly, Black Entertainment Television purchased syndication rights to Generations and began a complete run of the serial beginning in the fall of 1991.
It is ironic that while blacks occupied only a small portion of soap opera roles, they formed an influential percentage of the audience for such programming. A Nielsen survey of the first two months of 1986 showed that African Americans watched morning/afternoon TV (14.7 hours per week) at a rate 50 percent higher than the rest of the population (9.8 hours per week). More specifically, black households (12.3 rating) watched soap operas almost twice as much as white households (6.3 rating), and blacks totaled 21.7 percent of the entire audience for such dramas. And Nielsen surveys in the years following continue to demonstrate the loyalty of black viewers to daytime TV and soaps.
African Americans are not only a formidable audience for the soaps, but also on a per capita basis they watch more TV than whites. Nielsen reports in 1985 and 1986 demonstrated that on a daily basis African-American households viewed television 40 percent more than others. By early 1988 black households watched TV for an average of 10.6 hours daily, while others viewed for 7.3 hours. They also tuned in to free over-the-air stations at a rate 80 percent higher than other households in the daytime, and 19 percent higher in prime time.
African-American viewers also had distinct tastes that did not always match those of white viewers. Above all, they responded well to shows highlighting black characters. As illustrated by figure 20. 1, black viewers definitely had their own favorite programs.
Viewing Discrepancies by Racial Households,
January- February 1986
| Others |
|The Cosby Show||1||1|
|The Facts of Life||6||26|
|Charlie & Co.||12||75|
|Murder, She Wrote||25||3|
|Who’s the Boss||54||9|
Significantly, a large or small black response could strongly affect a series in terms of its rating and relative rank, figures that mean life or death for a TV program. The statistics in figure 20.2 demonstrate how the fate of some series in 1988 was reflected in their acceptance or rejection by the African-American audience.
Rating/Ranking Discrepancies by Racial Households,
|A Different World||46.6/1||22.4.4||25.0/2|
|My Two Dads||6.4/38||16.7/20||16.7/24|
In a broadcast universe in which three networks provide the bulk of the nation’s entertainment, the size of the viewership among a specific racial minority may be interesting, but it was not crucial. Even with two significant rivals for the largest audience, a network could afford to discount the predilections of minority viewers—particularly when its competitors also ignored those preferences. But in the narrowcast universe, where a multitude of stations fractionalize the mass audience and dissipate a network’s broad appeal, minority-audience statistics assume enhanced importance. For TV advertisers targeting the black consumer market worth more than $200 billion by the early 1990s—a socioeconomic reality that make “African America” wealthier and more populated than most independent nations in the world—the solidity of preferences in the community was assurance of viability. For a production studio or network seeking a base of "guaranteed viewers" on which to build a hit show, these figures illustrated the importance of bringing attractive black story lines talent into a series.
This was particularly the case with free television in its competition with cable. Cable may have lured viewers from over-the-air TV, but the vast majority of homes being wired belonged to whites. By the end of 1989 only 39 percent of black households subscribed to cable compared to 59 percent of non-black households. Furthermore, cable has flourished in the white suburbs and in white communities within most major cities. More than a decade after the technology became a commercial boom; however, many large inner-city communities remain unwired. And cable costs money. Often the poorest residents in large U.S. cities, people of color, have less disposable income to spend on video entertainment than do whites. Thus, even when cable is made available to African-American households, many find it unaffordable.
Should such realities have failed to substantiate the economic soundness of curbing racial bias in the industry, then the popularity of several black-centered series surely proved that African Americans and millions of non-black viewers would accept minority actors on TV, perhaps more readily than advertisers and programmers. The most influential person in talk television during the past decade is an African-American woman: Oprah Winfrey. In an entertainment format that competes with Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford, Geraldo Rivera, and Joan Rivers, Winfrey has combined her affable personality and engaging openness to become the nation's premier talk-show host.
Significantly, not only did she make The Oprah Winfrey Show the most popular syndicated program of its type in the United States, since making her Chicago talk show a national phenomenon in 1986 she has built a veritable entertainment empire. Winfrey established her own production facility and media corporation in Chicago, Harpo Studios, which produces her program as well as her other video and film ventures—such as the short-lived series Brewster Place in 1990—as well as projects from other media companies. And Winfrey has been heralded, winning critical acclaim from her peers, winning Emmy awards for her work in television, and receiving a nomination for an Academy Award in her first performance in a feature film, The Color Purple.
What Oprah Winfrey accomplished in reality-based daytime TV, Bill Cosby achieved even more impressively in prime-time situation comedy. Since it premiered on NBC in the fall of 1984, The Cosby Show has been monumentally successful. First, the series triggered a renaissance in television humor. Industry analysts in the early 1980s had actually written of the demise of TV humor, and particularly the family-centered sitcom. During the 1983-84 season, for example, only one such show, Kate & Allie, finished among the top fourteen series. But given the herd instinct that stampedes programmers to imitate a hit show, the popularity of The Cosby Show quickly drove producers to revive the sitcom and clone the Cosby model—in white and in black versions.
The roots of success for The Cosby Show were several. First, the program was well-produced and well-delivered from concept to final product. Few programs in video history have achieved such widespread acceptance so swiftly. All Cosby did was bring viewers something the networks had never offered in the past: a regular series that focused on a respectable African-American family with loving parents who respected their children, and respectful children who loved their parents.
Despite this simple premise, The Cosby Show was revolutionary for U.S. television. At once it was as familiar as Father Knows Best and as inventive as the first series in TV history to highlight a black nuclear family in a positive light. No divorced or single parents here, no bickering or rude children. No demeaning racial stereotypes, either, for the story of the Huxtable family centered about a pediatrician father, a lawyer mother, and several upstanding upper-middle-class offspring. Further, via well-written scripts, sensitive direction, and attractive performances, the show delivered subtle messages that were universally understood: an appreciation of human dignity, the nurturing of respectful and loving relationships, support for social accomplishment, the rewards of education, and the central importance of constructive family ties.
Undoubtedly, The Cosby Show was good television, but just as surely, it was propitious. At a time when conservative family values were a prominent part of the political ideology espoused by President Ronald Reagan and his supporters, the Cosby formula hit a responsive chord. The series inspired a nation seeking role models in responsible family life—black or white, rich or poor. As figure 20.3 illustrates, the program was rapidly and thoroughly embraced by American viewers.
Ratings of The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show was also easy for white viewers to accept. As a celebration of African-American achievement and assimilation, it never threatened its audience. Much as the two Roots miniseries painted a racism so horrendous that contemporary whites could discount their own prejudices, The Cosby Show offered a black family so successful that whites could feel confident, despite the protestations of some minority leaders, that the American system was working well for racial minorities. As black social critic Shelby Steele has mockingly pointed out, "the success of this handsome, affluent black family points to the fair-mindedness of whites who, out of their essential goodness, changed society so that black families like the Huxtables could succeed." Indeed, as Steele has written, "Cosby, like a priest, absolves his white viewers, forgives and forgets the sins of the past. ... He tells his white viewers each week that they are okay, and that this black man is not going to challenge them."
Whatever its social implications, The Cosby Show remains a black program, one that is highly popular with black viewers, and Bill Cosby's professional triumph has affected the complexion of broadcast television since the late 1980s. Since Cosby's success, most of the leading programs on network TV, and the majority of new shows each season, have been situation comedies. The trend peaked by the end of the decade when ten of the top fourteen shows for the 1988-89 season were sitcoms, and fifty of the ninety-three entertainment series scheduled on network video in 1990 were comedies—most of them sitcoms, and many set in nuclear families.
While The Cosby Show influenced the general tenor of national television, its impact upon NBC was phenomenal. In the early 1980s the network was in serious trouble because it had no hit shows. In fact, NBC had offered only a few popular series since the mid-1970s. Statistics from the top twenty-five network programs in the eight seasons between 1975 and 1983 reveal that only twenty-three of those two hundred shows—a total of 11.5 percent—were NBC programs." This dismal record led television historian Laurence Bergreen to conclude in 1980 that "NBC gives signs of becoming the first network to become obsolete."
Sparked by The Cosby Show, however, the network experienced renewed acceptance. The series brought in money, prestige, and viewers. With Bill Cosby at the lead, Thursday nights on NBC became the most formidable evening schedule in the industry. As the following chart indicates, audiences gathered to watch the Huxtable family and did not change their dials. Programs that had struggled for ratings for two years—Family Ties and Cheers—achieved overwhelming acceptance once The Cosby Show was scheduled ahead of them in the 1984-85 season. In the case of A Different World, this NBC sitcom from the producers of The Cosby Show never lacked a large viewership because since premiering in the 1987-88 season it followed the Huxtables on Thursday evening. Figure 20.4 demonstrates the importance of The Cosby Show to the success of those NBC series following it.
|Figure 20.4: |
NBC Programs Following The Cosby Show
|1988||A Different World||2|
|1989||A Different World||3|
|1990||A Different World||4|
|1991||A Different World||4|
Not only did The Cosby Show propel other NBC Thursday-night series to the top of the ratings, it also validated the financial soundness of the African-American presence on television. Since the mid-1980s the networks have been seeking more black-centered comedy hits. With shows such as The Robert Guillaume Show, Charlie & Co., 227, Amen!, Frank's Place, Family Matters, Fresh Prince of Bel Air—even True Colors with its interracial family and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (in which, shortly before its cancellation from the Lifetime cable outlet in 1991, Molly became the first white, unmarried TV character to give birth to a baby fathered by a black man)—the results have ranged from success to failure. It is interesting, however, that the swing to blacks in comedies has not been total. In the main, white-centered sitcoms are still void of meaningful minority presence.
TV has reluctantly embraced black-centered domestic comedies, and its record with African Americans in dramatic series is marked by strong characterization but sparse utilization. In made-for-television films, where the casting pattern has remained restrictive, even less has changed. The color line inherited from earlier decades is still operative, thereby blocking black actors from starring in the abundance of run-of-the-mill stories about romance, medical problems, foreign intrigue, courtroom matters, criminal victimization, and the like.
Blacks may be plentiful as local color types, even loyal buddies to white central characters, but when they appear as the principal stars of movies made for network or cable release, it is almost always in roles that must be played by minority actors. Familiar here are biographies of celebrated African Americans (The Josephine Baker Story), docudramas based on famous or infamous events (The Atlanta Child Murders), or dramatizations of great moments in civil rights history (Separate But Equal, the Emmy-winning docudrama about attorney Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP's successful court challenge to legalized segregation in the early 1950s). As one African-American critic wrote in 1991, "I wish there were a television schedule that reflected the world I live in, with black people doing all kinds of things every day of the year."
Actor Joe Morton also faulted contemporary television for its failure to portray the everyday lives of African Americans. Appearing in February 1991 on Story of a People: The Black Road to Hollywood, a syndicated report on the black condition in the entertainment industry, the co-star of the NBC lawyer series Equal Justice chided filmmakers for confining blacks to familiar roles. "We're still talking about equality. We're still talking about slavery. We're still talking about the Civil War. We're still talking about the '60s," Morton complained. "There are hundreds and hundreds of stories that need to be told about black people—and about their history, about who they are, and about what we've done, and about what we want to do, about what our families are like, what our everyday lives are like—that have nothing to do at all about striving toward equality."
While this narrowness has excluded African-American actors from many fulfilling roles, employment statistics suggest that priorities in U.S. commercial culture are improving for minority performers. According to data released by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), between 1983 and 1989 there was more than a 100 percent increase in the casting of black performers in the movie and prime-time TV projects of the major production studios. While African Americans accounted for less than 5 percent of all speaking roles in 1983, they appeared in 10 percent of such parts in 1989. When added to figures for other minorities, SAG reported that 14 percent of all speaking parts went to non-whites. Nonetheless, as a Guild official pointed out, "People of color are still looking for improvement because the current ethnic population [of the United States] is about 27 percent. So we are still not seeing the full diversity of the American scene."
Improvements in minority representation on TV have not been confined to comedy and drama series. Blacks also made significant strides in actuality programming. The appearance in 1990 of Jesse Jackson, a syndicated talk show hosted by the peripatetic national leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, offered not only a major national forum for political argumentation, but its persistent concern with issues confronting blacks gave the program a moral focus uncommon for American television.
In a totally different area, a number of black weather forecasters, led by Steve Baskerville, who left KYW in Philadelphia and joined the CBS Morning News in January 1984, rose quickly from local to network prominence. By 1990 three men—Spencer Christian on ABC's Good Morning, America, Mark McEwen on CBS News This Morning, and Al Roker on NBC's Today and Sunday programs—had become the nation's premier weathercasters."
While the premature death in 1984 of Max Robinson ended the career of the first black anchorman in network news, by the 1990s Bernard Shaw emerged as the principal anchor on the Cable News Network. And since his CNN newscasts are seen in almost one hundred foreign countries, Shaw has become the most widely-viewed broadcast journalist on the planet. By reporting live from the scene of great human crises—be it Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 the government of the People's Republic of China brutally suppressed demonstrations for democracy, or Baghdad, where during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 the U.S. and its allies employed high-tech missiles and aircraft to bombard the Iraqi capital—Shaw has helped to redefine electronic journalism in terms of its immediacy and impact.
Still another dimension of contemporary home entertainment affected by black performance has been TV sports. Here African Americans have achieved strategic importance. In boxing, track and field, and summer Olympics competition, as well as in the dominant college and professional sports, basketball, baseball, and football, black athletes have excelled in numbers well beyond their percentage of the national population. Black competitors have even entered professional wrestling, long a segregated TV attraction.
In recent years, moreover, several standout black players have been able to exploit their sports achievements in peripheral areas. Typically, Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins, celebrated for their achievements on the basketball court, translated that prestige into TV advertising where they became prominent commercial spokesmen for athletic footwear. Bo Jackson's unique success at two professional sports, football and baseball, made him not only a potent salesman for Nike, Cheerios, Pepsi-Cola, and AT&T, but also the symbol of mastery in all sports. And Michael Jordan's singular athleticism has led this basketball star into commercial endorsements for products as diverse as Nike, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Wheaties, the Illinois Lottery, Gatorade, and McDonald's restaurants."
On the other side of active sports competition, many blacks who had retired from professional athletics have returned as TV sports commentators. Among these personalities are James Brown, Bill Russell, Ahmad Rashad, O.J. Simpson, Quinn Buckner, Lynn Swann, and Dan Jiggets. Add to this the numerous African-American sportscasters on local stations, plus those on national sports scoreboard and talk shows, and it becomes clear that television has begun to recognize the importance of African Americans in and out of sports entertainment.
Still, the real power in television rests not with on-air talent, but with the executive leadership behind the scenes. Here is where directors, producers, and corporate vice presidents establish policy, initiate projects, employ talent, spend money, and create cultural products and trends. Here, too, is precisely where African Americans and their interests remain inadequately represented. While there are experienced black directors such as Michael Schultz, Bill Duke, Georg Stanford Brown, Kevin Hooks, and Thomas Carter, blacks directed only 4 percent of all television shows made in 1988, and less than 1 percent of all motion pictures.
The black presence among entertainment executives is even more dismal. In network TV corporate offices, African Americans remain a rarity. Of the forty entertainment vice presidents at ABC and NBC in the spring of 1989, only two were black; at CBS none was black. Similarly, at the eight major Hollywood studios there were no African-American officials with the power to put a movie into production. Interviewed on CNN at the time, Michael Schultz noted that in the course of his fifteen years as a motion picture director, "never once did I sit across the table from a black executive and trade ideas and develop a project and have that kind of relationship." And this powerlessness has dangerous implications, he suggested, because "People really believe that what they see on the screen is real. Since we don't control the ability to put those images out there, we can't change what's on the screen."
A year later David Kissinger reported in Variety that matters were still dismal. There were no black entertainment presidents at the four networks, including Fox. And only six programming directors and two vice presidents out of the 120 such executives were black. At Fox, where she was the only African-American official, Karen Barnes was vice president for children's TV. The other executives were three women at NBC (Winifred White, Charisse McGee, and Phyllis Tucker Vinson, who was vice president for children's and family programming); two women at CBS (Kelly Goode and Adoley Odunton); and at ABC two women and the only black male executive in network TV (Kim Fleary, Mary Ann Henderson, and Richard Hull).
These were statistics that Stanley Robertson—the first black programming executive at NBC a quarter-century earlier—described now as "more than frustrating. They are truly embarrassing." He added, "The unspoken attitude is still that blacks are great for singing and dancing, but not for giving orders." But, Robertson cautioned, "You can't blame the networks without blaming society as a whole."
Certainly, there were notable exceptions in TV management. In 1990, for example, Jonathan Rodgers—who then headed the CBS station in Chicago, WBBM—was promoted to the presidency of the CBS Television Stations division. In the process he became the highest-ranking African American in the history of a broadcasting corporation that had been employing executives since 1927.
That power placements for blacks remain rare in white television is due in great part to the chronic unwillingness of the broadcast industry to regularly hire and develop minority officers. As journalist Ted Koppel described the situation on ABC News Nightline on April 6, 1987, "Whites have been running the establishment of broadcasting ... for too long and seem to be reluctant to give up power."At a time when the changing economic and technological realities of TV are compelling increased minority participation on the screen, there are still no material reasons to anticipate an increase in black occupancy rates in television executive offices. There may be dark new wine to behold on the screen, but it is being offered up in the same white old bottles.
Perhaps as a portent of improved opportunities for minorities behind the camera, Variety reported that by the spring of 1991 a record number of theatrical films involving black creators was in production. This included thirteen movies directed by African Americans scheduled for release in 1991, and twenty other motion pictures starring black actors slated to be released that year, "the most since the explosion of the early seventies, when hundreds of so-called blaxploitation features were made." Cautiously, Melvin Van Peebles suggested that matters finally might be improving. "We have the beginnings of a technical infrastructure today," he said, "but still there are no blacks in Hollywood in a position to green-light a picture and no black-owned theater circuits."