The Black Television Program

When semanticist S. I. Hayakawa wrote in 1963 about the effects of TV on African Americans, he argued that to maintain white supremacy, blacks would have to be segregated from existing television. To stop the progress of the civil rights movement, he suggested, white segregationists had the impossible task of providing blacks with their own stations, channels, transmission frequencies, and programs. Moreover, blacks would need special TV sets unable to receive signals from white stations.

It is ironic that in less than a decade someone as prestigious as Whitney Young of the National Urban League would demand, in the name of black progress, several of the conditions Hayakawa saw as unrealizable prerequisites for segregation. Speaking in 1970, Young felt that the only way for blacks to overcome bias in the TV industry was to establish their own production companies and produce their own programming. Television was clearly not serving the best interests of blacks, Young noted, because African-American employment in video was actually regressing. In this regard, Young was one of the first to recognize that in the new decade the black-and-white-together days of the civil rights movement were gone, and African Americans more than ever were alone in pressuring for their social goals.

The struggle for television that was meaningful to black Americans was a particularly heated residual from the Golden Age. During the early 1970s, ad hoc organizations throughout the nation presented demands to local stations, protested to the networks, and lobbied at the FCC for increased minority involvement. In Kansas City, the group was called the Peoples Communication Commission; in Youngstown it was the Black Broadcasting Coalition; in Houston it was Black Citizens for Media Access; in Greenville, South Carolina, it was The Cause; in Cincinnati it was Blacks Concerned for Justice and Equality in the Media and in New York City it was called Black Citizens for Fair Media. Whatever such local groups called themselves, they shared common goals: more jobs, more service from industry, and positive black images in TV programming.

An example of the work of a typical organization was that of Black Citizens for Fair Media (BCFM) which in 1972 filed with the FCC a petition to deny the license renewal of the CBS flagship station, WCBS-TV in New York City. BCFM demanded that the station recruit and train blacks in all phases of production. It held protracted discussions with station management to obtain programming it felt to be relevant to such community problems as crime, drugs, health, poverty, housing, and welfare. The group also demanded more black news reporters and more black cultural programs. Although WCBS-TV executives complained that realization of these demands would create "apartheid programming," and would so fragment the broadcast day that the station would be "serving no one while disserving the vast majority," such lobbying efforts by black special interest groups seemed the only way to make the medium relevant to minority viewers. And in two instances during the 1960s—with WLBT-TV (Jackson, Mississippi) and with the Alabama Educational Television Commission and its eight statewide public TV stations—these efforts were effective enough to cause the FCC to refuse to renew broadcasting licenses because of racial discrimination in programming.

Throughout the decade, moreover, responsible social and academic institutions continued to criticize the unresponsiveness of TV to the systematic exclusion of minorities. In 1970, the New York State Civil Rights Commission investigated chronic discrimination in the trade unions servicing the film and video industries. According to the head of that commission, the fact that only 12 of the 667 members of one union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, were from racial minorities was "rank discrimination."

In 1972, the Congressional Black Caucus heard testimony berating institutional racism in broadcasting. Here it was pointed out that no public TV stations had black managers, that blacks owned no stations, and that hiring practices never were geared to the minority population figures in station areas.

The same year the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ assailed the television industry for its "dismal efforts at absorbing minorities." Based on a survey of 609 TV stations, the major findings of this organization were the following:

  1. Seventy percent of commercial stations were totally white in managerial positions.
  2. Fifty percent of all stations hired no minority employees in professional capacities.
  3. Fifty-five percent of all stations did not hire minorities as technicians.
  4. Eighty-one percent of all stations hired only whites in sales positions.
  5. Thirty-four percent of all stations hired no blacks in any of these four capacities.

Significantly, according to the Office of Communication, there was little improvement in minority hiring throughout the remainder of the decade. In 1974 and 1978 the Office reported only slight rises in minority employment in commercial and public stations. Further, it noted that those reporting the statistics were probably manipulating the figures, presenting inaccurate numbers to place the best light possible on continued discrimination.

One apparent ploy, it revealed, was for stations to reclassify minorities in low-echelon jobs as managerial-level employees, creating the illusion, thereby, of hiring more minorities in executive jobs. By 1978, 80 percent of the jobs at TV stations were being reported as upper-level, thus creating a ratio of four executives to each staff support worker. In the words of the director of the Office of Communication, "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a number of broadcasters are denying women and minorities power by creating the illusion that everyone has it."

Although the FCC strengthened its equal employment opportunity operations and affirmative action policies, blacks failed to make significant inroads in video in the 1970s. Even the appointment in 1972 of Benjamin Hooks as the first African-American FCC commissioner did little to alleviate the discriminatory practices.

The frustration inherent in such a situation is illustrated in the actions of the National Black Media Coalition, a nationwide black interest organization demanding more employment opportunity and fairer depiction for blacks in television. In 1973, this lobbying group complained to the FCC that adherence to affirmative action policies by local broadcasters was "fraudulent." The coalition contended, further, that much of the nation's TV programming was "racist."' By 1978, however, it had abandoned hope in the FCC, now criticizing that government body for doing "the closest thing to nothing" in regard to civil rights issues.

As with the critique from the National Black Media Coalition, various social groups in the 1970s continued to denounce black representation on the screen as well as in the industry. One such vocal group was the National Black Feminist Organization, which in 1974 roundly denounced the pejorative portrayal of blacks on TV. It cited six major criticisms of the manner in which blacks were shown in prime-time shows.

  1. Black shows are slanted toward the ridiculous with no redeeming counter images.
  2. Third World people are consistently cast in extremes.
  3. When blacks are cast as professional people, the characters they portray generally lack professionalism and give the impression that black people are incapable and inferior in such positions.
  4. When older persons are featured, black people are usually cast as shiftless derelicts or nonproductive individuals.
  5. Few black women in TV programs are cast as professionals, paraprofessionals, or even working people.
  6. Black children, by and large, have no worthy role models on television.

The respected Annenberg School of Communication of the University of Pennsylvania continued the attack on TV. It reported in 1979 that little had changed during the decade. After a study of ten years of television programming, it concluded that minorities—as well as women, children, and older people—were being short-changed by stereotyping in network dramatic shows. An analogous study by the United States Civil Rights Commission, published in 1977 under the title Window Dressing on the Set—and in 1979 in a supplementary volume entitled, Window Dressing on the Set: An Update—concluded among other matters:

Stereotyped portrayals of minorities and women, which have been part and parcel of successful program formats, are perpetuated by the networks in their pursuit of higher ratings and higher profits. The surest route to a successful and highly profitable program is to create a new series based on formats that have already proven popular.... Moreover, network programmers are afraid of offending the sensibilities—whether real or imagined—of large segments of the viewing audience. Programming designed to reach the widest possible audience, coupled with the demands of the ratings race, constrain writers and producer from introducing more realistic and diverse images of women and minorities to the television screen. Thus, network programmers with one eye on successful old formulas, the other on the offensive, and with both hands in their pockets, are not oriented toward serving the public interest.

If African Americans continued to be victimized by bias in network TV during and after the 1970s, there were, nevertheless, several exceptional programs that served blacks constructively. This was particularly true of those black-oriented productions—usually produced by, or syndicated to, local stations, or offered on PBS outlets—focused on news and public affairs. Not only did these shows treat neglected aspects of the black experience, they generally involved minority producers, directors, writers, and technical assistants.

One of the earliest formats to emerge in this regard was the short-run series treating black history and/or culture. As early as 1965, NET produced History of the Negro People, a limited series hosted by Ossie Davis. This program utilized actors such as Frederick O'Neal and Roscoe Lee Browne to dramatize critical events and personalities from the history of American blacks. A more contemporary focus was found in the Westinghouse Group W series Rush to Freedom. Hosted by Georgia state senator Julian Bond in 1970, this six-part program presented a detailed analysis of the civil rights movement.

More cultural in orientation were productions such as Black Omnibus, a thirteen-part series hosted by James Earl Jones in 1973. This show mixed black celebrities from the entertainment world with excursions into black history, sports, religion, dance, and the like. Similarly, Doin' It was a nine-part variety series on public television in 1972 that blended entertainment with enlightenment.

Less pedagogic in its intent, but overwhelmingly more successful was Soul Train, a show that mixed popular music and dance for black teenagers. The program was produced locally in Chicago in the early 1970s where its creator, Don Cornelius, envisioned it as a black version of American Bandstand. Two decades later, Soul Train was still thriving, seen in most American market areas, still an important vehicle of exposure for rhythm and blues entertainers.

There were other series with similar orientations from Just Jazz on PBS in 1971 to Positively Black, an NBC public affairs series in the mid-1970s. By the end of the decade Today's Black Woman and For You, Black Woman were syndicated shows with a female focus. And in the 1980s, With Ruby and Ossie was a PBS series treating black history and culture through the reflections of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and America's Black Forum was a syndicated public affairs show hosted by Julian Bond.

More prevalent still were black-oriented programs produced and shown exclusively on local stations. These programs, reminiscent of the early days of television, tended to feature talent, interviews, news, human-interest materials, and music and dance, all directed toward the local black community. Such programs appeared throughout the nation under titles like Soul Scene (WCAUTV/Philadelphia), Black Book (WFIL-TV/Philadelphia), Free Play (WTVS-TV/Detroit), Like It Is (WABC-TV/New York City), Right On (WBTV/Charlotte), Ebony Beat (WQXI-TV/Atlanta), Soul Searching (WFLD-TV/Chicago), Solid Black (WTTW/Chicago), and Black on Black (KMTV/Omaha). There were also local experiments with news programming by and for the black community. While such features did not endure over a period of time, their persistent reappearance—under such titles as Black News and Black Perspective on the News—suggests that established news programs were not meeting the needs of local blacks.

In the process of bringing such community-oriented programs to video, many series hosts became prominent local celebrities. Such was the case, for example, in Chicago with Edwin "Bill" Berry, Jim Tilmon, and Ouida Lindsay. In New York City, Gil Noble developed his show, Like It Is, into a formidable example of local journalism. A winner of several Emmy awards, since the late 1960s Noble challenged the perimeters of television. He used Like It Is as a vehicle of probe and explanation for black political figures like H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and the reform Democratic political leader from Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer. Noble devoted individual broadcasts to the ideas and accomplishments of Paul Robeson and Malcolm X. He interviewed cultural achievers like Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. And Noble tied the black community of New York City to the broader third world experience, bringing to his public affairs program such black-world leaders as Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and President Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea."

Of all the black public service and cultural shows, however, the most distinguished and enduring was Black Journal (later called Tony Brown's Journal). The series emerged on public television in mid-1968, a period after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. that Variety later called "videoland's Golden Age of racial remorse." Although network motivations may have been related to the murder of the humanitarian leader, Black Journal was a stridently independent production that looked frankly and candidly at the wide variety of African-American life.

Like no national series before or after, Black Journal broke the perimeters of political expression established in the experience with Paul Robeson in the 1950s. This program gave air time to black leaders such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Imamu Baraka, and Bobby Seale. It probed controversial issues like housing discrimination, prison conditions, interracial marriage, and the assassination of Malcolm X.

The program was first produced by filmmaker William Greaves. For two years Greaves handled Black Journal as a monthly hour-long feature. During its last five years the series was produced by Tony Brown. Particularly under Brown's leadership, the program evidenced a distinct political quality. When he announced in 1970 that Black Journal would henceforth have its own correspondent stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Brown explained that black viewers needed an ethnic perspective on the continent. "We as Africans in America need to see the positive side in Africa," remarked the former dean of communications studies at Howard University, "so that we can develop a much needed psychological identity with Africa to develop our roots of identification." Further, according to the producer, blacks in the United States were chronically fed self-destructive images of Africa. "The 'white press' goes to Africa and seeks out sensationalism," he argued, "and we get the picture of Africa as a Tarzan and Jane land and a constant bed of revolution."

As a pioneer of controversial black-oriented programming with a nationwide audience, Tony Brown was necessarily diffident and defensive. When the Ford Foundation dropped its funding, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) threatened to cancel Black Journal, Brown defended his philosophical slant as an attempt to balance the white thinking and interpretation that dominated TV.

Brown fought for his series. When NET announced in 1970 that it had no records revealing which Southern outlets were not airing the show, Brown named a number of educational TV stations in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico. He also pointed out that as well as Black Journal, some of these stations were also preempting Sesame Street, the historical series On Being Black, and the black-oriented entertainment feature Soul. And when Black Journal was finally dropped from public TV in 1975, Brown blamed the Nixon administration for influencing the appointment of CPB board members who were antipathetic to Black Journal.

Undaunted, Brown took the program concept to commercial TV where in 1977 it became Tony Brown's Journal, a syndicated half-hour weekly show sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. With its goal of seeking "to explain the black experience in the country as an African-American experience," Tony Brown's Journal explored a wide range of topic affecting and reflecting African-American reality. Mixing location and studio interviews with still photography, performances, assorted graphics, and filmed materials, Brown treated matters as diverse as blacks in the military, the musical career of Eubie Blake, the hostile genetic theories of Professor William Shockley, blacks in radio and television, and the wave of murders plaguing black communities in Rochester and Atlanta in the early 1980s.

Tony Brown's Journal experimented with the latest telecast technology. The series was the first public service program to employ the Qube facilities of cable broadcaster, Warner Amex. With this electronic process, up to 25,000 specially wired homes in Columbus, Ohio, were able to register, and have instantaneously tabulated, viewer opinions on important issues discussed on individual telecasts. With this background, Tony Brown's Journal returned to PBS in February 1982, where it continues to probe the African-American condition.

As vital as they might have been to black communities, national and local black-oriented programs could not substitute for the color-blind promise of early TV. More often than not, such shows were aired so stations could satisfy public service obligations required by the FCC. They usually appeared at obscure times. Frequently, time slots were changed several times in a season. Weekend daytime hours and late Sunday evenings were favorite hours, particularly for those shows not telecast on public television outlets. And because these series often operated with low production budgets, their scope and theatrical qualities—and, therefore, their viewer appeal—were compromised.

There is also a question about the number of blacks who watched these shows. Nielsen ratings among African-American viewers in Washington, D.C. in early 1974 suggest that black-oriented public service programs failed to attract sizable minority audiences. Figures show that while network evening series with black stars attracted a large minority viewership, community programming and black news shows fared poorly. Sanford and Son, for example, had a rating of 69 and an 86 percent share of the audience. Even Soul Train did well with a 40 rating and a 70 percent share. But a black news show on Saturday evenings on WTTG drew only an 8 rating and a 14 percent share, while Harambee, a community interest program aired weekday mornings on WTOP, earned only a rating of 2 and a 13 share. Even Sesame Street, aimed particularly at inner-city children, gained only a rating of 2—the same figure drawn by vintage Little Rascals films broadcast opposite Sesame Street.

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