Love it or hate it, television is an integral part of American civilization. It is at once a seductive and entertaining theater in the home, a readily available source of news and information, an arena for sporting events, a forum of debate, an audio-visual billboard for advertising, and a reflector and creator of the popular mood. Those who adore it are often addicted to its mesmerizing offerings. Those who despise it are compelled, nevertheless, to recognize its powerful influence in the national existence. Whatever a critic's perspective, TV is on in America, and America is on TV.
To African Americans, television has had a relationship that is especially important. The medium emerged in the liberal climate of the years immediately following World War II, a time when the first modern strides toward freedom were being taken by blacks. Video matured in the midst of the civil rights movement. In fact, that movement was the first political groundswell to recognize the importance of TV and enlist the medium in a social crusade.
As well as being linked to television by history, blacks also watch TV. Statistics reveal that proportionately more blacks than whites view TV. This is especially the case with African-American children living in poverty.
This is a study of the relationship between television and blacks in the decades since the medium became popular. It is a history of great talents, achievements, and anticipations. It is also a history of disappointments, prejudices, and failures within the video industry and American society. Ultimately, however, it is the story of a promise never fully kept—a promise whose fullest dimensions perhaps were never totally realizable.
In its earliest years, television held the prospect of a bright and appealing future for Americans. Decades before it became a popular reality in the late 1940s, many saw the emerging medium as a wellspring from which would flow great social, cultural, and intellectual benefits. Combining the other popular arts—radio, film, theater, literature—into a single, ultimate medium, TV seemed to be propelling the United States toward a new era in its democratic civilization.
Comedian Eddie Cantor in 1936 envisioned television as an irresistible theater for mass diversion. It was to be an exciting forum bringing audiences "such entertainment as the world has never dreamed of." Dr. Ernst Frederick Werner Alexanderson, one of the most renowned scientists working on the development of radio and television, foresaw that video would have a significant political role to play. "Television will be a great asset to politicians," he predicted in 1930, for the "day is likely to come when candidates for President of the United States will campaign by television."'
The new medium was hailed as the answer to a variety of social problems. Some suggested the use of TV in the fight against crime. Here it could be used in such activities as the search for missing persons, the identification of suspects, and the transmission of information on wanted criminals. Experts wrote of TV as the educator of the future, a mechanism through which college courses would come to students in their own homes. Patrons of the arts felt it would bring uplifting opera, ballet, theater, and lectures to the appreciative masses. Businessmen saw television as facilitating intercity and international business meetings. And military strategists discussed the ways in which TV would assist them in peacetime, and in the event of another war.
One of the most hopeful prognostications came from famed sociologist Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr. Writing in 1932, he predicted that the "great kaleidoscope," as he termed it, was about to usher in an unprecedented era of international peace and understanding.
Television is a science and an art endowed with incalculable possibilities and countless opportunities. It will enable a large part of the earth's inhabitants to see and to hear one another without leaving their homes.... Eventually it will bring nations face to face, and make the globe more than a whispering gallery. Radio vision is a new weapon against hatred and fear, suspicion and hostility.
If television gave promise of overcoming hatred, fear, suspicion, and hostility, to no group was this hope more personal than to American blacks. For generations African Americans had been victims of bigotry. Institutionalized in dehumanizing slavery, and continued in the Jim Crow laws, oppressive patterns of exclusion formally barred blacks from the search for self-betterment that is the cornerstone of the American Dream. And where slavery and Jim Crow laws were absent, segregation and discriminatory practices continued to deter blacks from entering the mainstream of national life.
Fundamental to the success of these legal and extra-legal tactics was the antisocial image of blacks that was popularly communicated. In the popular arts and in traditional folklore, whites were conditioned to view blacks in hostile, patronizing terms. Here the impression was firmly established that blacks were lazy, conniving, emotional, and uneducated inferiors. To many, the most advanced African American did not match favorably with the least advanced white person. Such a view not only fostered racism, it also seemed to justify continued discrimination.
On their part, blacks drew from popular culture a similarly distorted image of themselves. There were few examples of intelligent black men or women in literature, movies, or broadcasting. African-American professionals were seldom offered as social role models. Yet, there were limitless instances where blacks were portrayed as maids, cooks, butlers, shoeshine boys, unskilled laborers, and doltish fools.
Television, however, had the potential to reverse centuries of unjust ridicule and misinformation. In terms of utilization of black professional talent, and in the portrayal of African-American characters, TV as a new medium had the capability of ensuring a fair and equitable future. This possibility was well appreciated by a black critic who suggested in the early 1950s that "as a new industry, TV has a great opportunity to smash many un-American practices and set new standards. Will TV meet the challenge or will it miss the boat?"
Now, more than four decades after TV first established itself as an integral part of American popular culture, it is profitable to look at television and its relationship to African Americans. What emerges from such a study is the picture of an association that has been, at best, ambivalent. On the one hand, it is the story of a genuine effort by some to treat blacks as a talented and equal part of the citizenry, to employ them fairly, and to depict them honestly. On the other hand, it is the tale of persistent stereotyping, reluctance to develop or star black talent, and exclusion of minorities from the production side of the industry.
Compared to the prejudice traditionally found in other popular media, TV has made singular progress in bettering minority social conditions. Moreover, within the industry there exists a historical trend toward constructive change in the treatment of blacks. Nevertheless, to the present day, TV has not matched performance with potential. Many of those connected with the medium have yet to understand the responsibility television has to project undistorted, honest information as an antidote to the cultural legacy of bigotry. While the medium has accepted the invitation "to set new standards," it has never fully realized the implications of the challenge before it.
To understand the history of television and its association with American blacks, it is possible to divide the record into four distinct time periods. During its formative first decade, the TV industry veered from honesty to duplicity in its depiction of African Americans. In the second period, which was particularly touched by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, television slowly, but undeniably, evolved toward a fairer treatment of blacks, yet even here, TV was not without significant failings. In the third stage, between the 1970s and early 1980s, a new balance was struck in American television—a synthesis in which blacks were more prevalent in programming, while they remained vulnerable to racial distortion. Never had so many African Americans appeared on television, yet never was their image more stereotyped.
Throughout these first three distinct time periods, black representation was shaped by the attitudes and priorities of the predominately white males who ran the television industry. But, whatever their personal feelings on racial matters, these were executives who understood TV as a profit-seeking enterprise. It may have been a national medium espousing egalitarian purposes, but first and foremost it was a capitalist business committed to making money. And in their finite wisdom, these executives felt that profits could be maximized by employing African Americans in stereotypical roles that would be acceptable to predominately white audiences. As well as being a biased methodology, this way of programming national TV was an unfair distortion created by the monopoly that was network broadcasting in the United States.
From the outset, national TV was structured as a monopoly controlled by ABC, CBS, and NBC. Through much of its first forty years, U.S. television at best consisted of three national networks and a few independent stations in each market area. The most popular operations were VHF (Very High Frequency) outlets ranging from channels 2 to 13. Due to technical requirements, however, there could never be more than seven VHF stations in a single market—and only Los Angeles and New York City had that many.
Network control of U.S. video was so solid that when UHF (Ultra High Frequency) stations, channels 14 through 84, began to appear in the mid-1950s, they failed to weaken network dominance. Indeed, UHF stations—local in their orientation and lacking the capital with which to produce original programs—were soon filled with reruns of series popularized and partly owned by ABC, CBS, and NBC.
With such channel scarcity, the greatest profits were earned by those operations that attracted the largest audiences. This was the era of broadcasting, a time when TV executives and sponsors sought broadly-based audiences, conglomerations of diverse viewers fused together to watch TV shows communicating attitudes held in common. Programs were aimed at mainstream, majority tastes: what experienced programmers felt most people would watch. Minority preferences—be they racially, politically, culturally, or intellectually outside this mainstream—were seldom served by commercial television.
It is important, however, that this exclusionary arrangement was not set in stone. As actor Bernie Casey noted in 1983, "It is not an act of God that television is so white. It is a conscious decision made by white men who think the world is all white and refuse to understand that it is not. Things can change." Indeed, since the early 1980s there has been change, encouraging change triggered by the slow but steady erosion of monopolistic broadcasting. In its place there has been emerging a narrowcasting system offering dozens of national program services and scores of channels that are delivered by cable, direct broadcast signal, and other electronic advances. This has resulted in an unsettled new video reality characterized by intense competition for audiences and, consequently, the need to serve narrower constituencies.
Inherent in this metamorphosis toward narrowcasting is the possibility of a television New Deal for African Americans. This possibility arises not because of any great libertarian conversion, it exists because industry leaders and advertisers now recognize blacks as a formidable consumer force with size, money, and definite likes and dislikes. While they received relatively scant attention when the three broadcasters were competing for at least one-third of the national audience, black viewers are now a desirable demographic bloc—representing more than 12 percent of the U.S. population—that is often courted by networks and stations competing aggressively for select audiences.
Ironically, it appears that the only way to have realized the bias-free, original promise of TV was to destroy the channel scarcity fundamental to discriminatory broadcasting. In this light, the rearrangement of U.S. television and the subsequent decline of the three national networks, events that have occurred in the fourth time period, offer the greatest hope for positive African-American representation since the early years of national video.