The state of PoC on TV: better or worse?

This makes me afraid. Very afraid. In concept it sounds good:

Percy Miller (formerly Master P) announces the launch of Better Black Television (BBTV) a family friendly network that will provide positive content for a black and brown culture that will appeal to all races with a goal to bring people of color a choice when turning on their television.

But… Master P’s running it. Master P. I mean, come on.

Shake what you got in them jeans (them jeans)
Girl grab the wall, then shake it like a dog
Shake what you got in them jeans (them jeans)
Girl grab the wall, then shake it like a dog
Shake what you got in them jeans (oh yeah)
Girl grab the wall, then shake it like a dog
Shake what you got in them jeans (oh yeah)
From the front to the back, girl you know what I mean

From “Them Jeans”

…Hmm.

Anyway, this touched off a conversation between my cousin and myself about the state of television for PoC now versus 30 years ago. It seemed to both of us that there were more PoC on TV back when we were kids (in the 1970s, right after the Civil Rights movement) than there are now. They were not good depictions back then — one-dimensional, prone to early death, bizarrely good at martial arts — but they were depictions. These days it seems hard even to get that much. Blackarazzi noticed the change, too:

There was a time when diversity seemed to come naturally to prime time. The social consciousness of the ’70s spawned successful sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son; the ’80s brought living-in-harmony comedy Diff’rent Strokes and the ultimate breakthrough TV family on The Cosby Show. But a long fallow period (dominated by Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends) followed until 1999, when the networks announced another particularly white fall lineup (The West Wing, Freaks and Geeks, Once and Again) — and minority groups revolted.

Thus prompting a brief resurgence in which we saw a few more brown faces appear. But that resurgence seems to have faded again.

Or has it? I’ll put the question to you folks, then. Are PoC on TV better off now than they were 30 years ago?

34 Responses

  1. One reason you’ll hear from tv history folks is that with just 3 networks in the 1970s, there was more of an attempt for each to attract ALL viewers. Once cable broke up the audience, stations starting focusing on niche audiences, and the networks no longer felt the same pressure to be inclusive of PoC because other stations could do that “for” them. It’s not a pretty picture.

  2. What is this “television” you speak of?

  3. Until PoC can
    1) own networks
    2) fund scripted programming

    PoC will always be at the mercy of Hollywood, Madison Ave, and Wall Street.

  4. I don’t think much has changed on scripted television. I think it’s just transformed a little, at least from the 90s. We’re getting representations of a wider variety of people of colour, but for the most part, they’re predominantly one-dimensional, with both positive and negative stereotypes. It’s as though the character has been written specifically for their race, not as a character who just happens to be played by an actor of colour.

    In regards to popular television, I think POC are still getting stuck in the background, as sidekicks, extras, guest stars, and even if they are a part of a recurring cast, they are usually (though not always) stereotypes or presumed archetypes for their race.

    So, better off… I don’t know. There’s still a lot missing, and I don’t know how to measure it.

  5. Please bear with me because I haven’t had cable in three months…

    Here’s what I’ve noticed:

    1) Before the Olympics, I happened to catch the Gymnastics World Championship and the Olympic Trials. There was always a little Black girl in a leotard standing in the background – putting chalk on her hands, stretching, etc. – but they never showed her perform! That pissed me off so much!

    2) All of the shows on CW-WB-UPN-My-Network fall into three categories: “Pretty White People with Problems”, “Funny Black People”, and “America’s Next Top Model”.

    3) Last season, it seemed as though there were a lot of “sassy Black friends” as supported characters (usually on the screen long enough to say “You tell ‘im, girl!” and twirl her neck); now you can’t even find those.

    4) I’ve gotten to the point that when I see a Black character on TV, I hope for the best but expect the worst. I’ve begun to ask myself: Do I want to see more diversity on the screen and have the characters end up to be nothing more than stereotypes? Or would I rather not see any color on my screen at all?

    5) Another reason for the lack of diversity could be that producers may just be terrified about how to treat a Black character, or any other “non-white” character. Sounds stupid, I know. But, POCs are still considered “other”, and there may be producers out there who are so worried about how to script a character who’s Black (Is this too stereotypical? Should there be a special episode on race? Will the “Angry Negroes” protest the network? etc) , that they don’t consider treating him/her as a just another character.

  6. Also:

    I want to start a sports team called “The Angry Negroes”. ;-P

  7. i think kids programming is getting more diverse than ever before, while grownup programming is regressing.

  8. I’m kind wary of Master P starting a television station too. Or you know, terrified.

    My grandmother used to call my mom and tell her when a negro was on television. This was back in the 80′s.

    Now I get kind of excited when I see a black person on television. Especially one that isn’t sassy(black female stereotype #1) or angry (black male stereotype #1).

    I watch a lot of criminal investigation shows(CSI, L&O:SVU, Criminal Minds, NCIS) and they still have one brown person on the show. Sometimes two for an episode or two and wow, it’s really exciting!

    Anyone else remember when the Soul Train awards came on at 1 or 2 in the morning?

  9. I agree with you, bridget, and just would like to add that I think children’s programming is not only more diverse than ever before, but positively so. It’s not just stereotypes and sassy black friends. It seems to me anyway that many of the characters are just people who happen to be the race they are. If they do happen to do something ethnically specific (using Spanish idioms, for example), it’s handled without resorting to stereotype.

  10. All I have is my opinion….

    I think we’re looking at three distinct points:

    1. Our cultural values have changed in this coutnry. over the past 30 years. As a child I actually watched television with my parents in the same room. Today I’ve got to check the rating of show to determine age apporpriateness. Today, our children and teens are the strongest conumer groups in terms of popular culture. There are plenty of black young actors on the tv screen. Cosby’s Raven Symone is one of the richest black young actors out there. She’s also a great role model!
    2. In terms of our presence on popular shows, yes we’ve made many strides across many generes. Let’s face it sitcoms are sitcoms. They are supposed to be poke fun and be funny. Tyler Perry certainly is laughing all the way to bank with crossover credits from the screen to tv. Same with Tyra Banks with Bankable productions and America’s Next Top Model. Now I’m not saying I’m a fan of any of these shows. If it means a black face is all up in the productions, kudos to them!
    3. Last point, are we marginalized and stereotyeped? Yes and No. Some of it we do ourselves, hello just watch BET music awards. Thank goodness for Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) and Henry Louis Gates. They continue to support and air real stories of our triumphs and tragedies as poc and as a nation. BTW they need funding too. So Ultimately as consumers we have an option to support networks that support our values…whatever they maybe.

  11. I must admit I had a vague sort of belief that there was some specific legislation or regulation or at least guidance that specified some element of racial diversity on US tv in the seventies, because it was very noticeable on monochrome Brit tv that only in America were all police captains gruff black guys (Cagney and Lacey, Starsky and Hutch…) and most judges were black AND female Then there was the A team and it was all downhill from there…

  12. I actually think that most PoC are worse off now than ever. Roles are confined almost entirely to roles that reinforce racial and sexual stereotypes – such as Tila Nguyen reinforcing the “Hot Asian Female” stereotype, A lot of Asian men on TV are either nerdy or kung-fu guys, still unable to get ANY girl, even their own – because she’s walking off with a white guy. Black women are still confined to being the sassy sidekick, the ghetto girl, the requisite Best Friend or the silent token prop. Black men are still portrayed as thugs, rappers, ballers, killers, etc. – and are still on the hunt for the white wimmenz. And Latinos get it just as badly – either they’re the maid, immigrant who crossed the border illegally, also gangsters or are basically “trying to poison the white community by the sale of those drugs!”

    Numbers mean little when there hasn’t been anything learned about the types of roles portrayed.

  13. *EDIT – not “EVER”, but since the 1970s.

  14. It is honestly difficult for me to tell, Nora.

    Most white people I know will say that they there is a very significant presence of actors of color in the popular television programs – spanning the whole spectrum from thug to professional. (That may not be a valuable indicator at all.)

    I honestly wish I had more time to simply sit, watch, and evaluate the TV roles people of color have. That would be a great Sociological homework project!

    When I was growing up in the 70′s and 80′s, I recall enjoying “What’s Happening?” and “The Jeffersons”. I remember “Easy Reader” (Morgan Freeman) in the Electric Company and Gordon (Roscoe Orman) from Sesame Street , not to mention Bill Cosby in Fat Albert. Anyone old enough to remember Pryor’s Place with Richard Pryor in early 80′s? I think it last only 1 or 2 seasons. And, yes, for better ot worse, I remember “Black Belt Jones” taking on the Mafia.

    When I stop to consider the popular shows of the late ’90s into this decade, it seems that there are many that blend the cast of actors – most notably shows like Law and Order, CSI, and E.R. ( I was pleased to find out that Lawrence Fishburne will replace William Petersen as the head detective in CSI – he is one of my favorite actors. )

    My wife and I always liked “In the House” with LL Cool J and, more recently, the The Bernie Mac Show. My 4-year old son loves to watch ‘Lil Bill.

    Let me ask this: Does there seem to be less of a presence of American actors of color because there are far, far more channels to choose from – not to mention channels in French, Spanish, and Chinese that are now included in many basic Dish/Cable packages?

  15. To frame my question another way: Could it that people of color native to the U.S. (primarily black and brown) have maintained the same presence as they had 30 years ago, but the difference is we have an enormous increase in international presence with our TV selections?

  16. What was the show with Michael J. Fox, where he had a colleague and friend who was black and gay, but neither defined that character? I want more of that.

    I want an actress like Rachel Lutrell to wear natural hair and still get hired to play a major character in the SG Series.

    I like Hiro on Heroes, but it’s no fun when it’s just a lame stereotype.

    Years after the “Diversity Fantasy” episode of News Radio, we’re getting less diverse shows than THAT one.

    I want Rev. Book to know what’s coming for him (he should have), be prepared to fight – and WIN.

    And I’d like Martha Jones AS Doctor Who, though I have to say, I thought they handled her ethnicity well (it was a non-issue for the Doctor, but often an issue when they went back in time).

    I ramble…what I mean is – there have been rays of light, but it sure hasn’t lived up to it’s promise.

  17. The show you’re thinking of, dianne, is Spin City. I always liked that show.

    I’m sorry if this is slightly ot, but one of the things that irks me is that even in ensemble shows that have a diverse cast, the main focus is still on the “pretty white people.”

    Take Grey’s Anatomy, for instance. Cristina Yang is (well, was; I don’t watch anymore) my favorite character on that show. She was incredibly smart, but not in the stereotypical “nerdy Asian” way. She was sexy, too, but again, not in the stereotypical “hot Asian female” way that A. mentioned upthread. She was ambitious and driven, a good friend to Meredith, and an incredibly talented surgeon. Bailey was my other favorite character – strong, independent, and, again, intelligent. And her sarcasm was hilarious. With these two and Chief Webber, Callie, and Burke, the show had a fairly diverse cast, and race didn’t define any of those characters. And yet, the focus of the show was… Meredith. And Derek. Two “pretty white people” who essentially whined a lot and made the same mistakes over and over and over. All of the other characters were far more interesting, and yet, they got second billing.

    Other examples include The Office (Stanley, Oscar vs. Pam, Jim, Micheal, and Dwight), Heroes (everybody vs. the Petrellis and Sylar), Scrubs (Carla, Turk vs. J.D.)… I’m sure there are more, but I haven’t watched much TV in a while.

  18. Oh, something else I liked about the way that Grey’s wrote Cristina – she was a good friend to Meredith, but she wasn’t her sidekick. She was a separate person, with her own storylines, her own issues and problems. Sometimes she talked to Meredith about these things, and sometimes she didn’t. Just like friends in real life.

  19. I don’t live in America anymore, so can anybody tell me whether there are any explicitly black shows on anymore. I haven’t heard about any. Does BET even have any original fictional program? That channel is such a terribly wasted opportunity.

    We get The Cosby Show here and aww man, I forget what a good show that was. Everyone watched that show! What happened?

  20. oh and when i saw “black shows”, i don’t mean “reality” shows, but i think that might be the problem for television all around. before we ask if television is any better for people of color,we should ask whether television is any better AT ALL.

  21. Julia and Bridget, you’re right that kids programming is more diverse than adult programming, and you can point to two major companies responsible for that trend–Nickelodeon and Disney. The article I linked to points out that of the 26 male Emmy nominees, all are white, and of the 25 women nominated, 20 are white.

    Now that doesn’t quite give one an idea of how un-diverse the programming as a whole it, but it does give one an idea of where the good roles are going, and it’s not to people of color, in general.

    Oh, and all five of those women of color who were nominated came from shows on ABC, which is owned by Disney. Coincidence?

    Who’d have ever thought I’d be talking nice about Disney?

  22. listen,
    run DMC made a turn around and has a HIT show on MTV. He is now Rev.Run ( yes, reverend) and his show shows family values. “Run’s House”, should watch it some time. Master P can make this turn around. I’ll see…..

  23. I think I agree with A, although I have noticed really awesome representation going on on kids’ shows.

    Not to mention the complete invisibility of Native Americans and Arab Americans, etc. Maybe I don’t watch enough tv.

    Also class representation sucks.

  24. Also class representation sucks.

    That’s VERY true. The most recent show I remember with good middle- to lower-middle-class representation was “Everybody Hates Chris”. Is that even still on?

  25. I think I’m still too vexed about BBTV thing to feel afraid or anything else at the moment.

    U.S.-wise, I think, and feel, there are SLIGHTLY more PoC in television mainly due to the increase in number of shows and channels available. However, it does not seem that status/roles and stories/character fates they’re given has changed much in the slightest to me.

    Anything beyond and/or better than what we’re usual given is few and far between in and of themselves. Not often long lasting and seem as sudden blips on the radar compared to the mass of other shows where our places in them are rather typical.

  26. Re: race & the Emmys: I just got done watching “The Wire.” How in the HELL did that show never win an Emmy? Although it had a bit of an issue with under-representing women (and featured a couple of problematic Black mother roles), overall it featured the most diverse, complex, talented, primarily Black cast ever on television. Not only did it have an ass-kicking gay Black man antihero AND a lesbian mommy cop named Shakima, but it was probably the best scripted TV show I’ve ever seen. If that shit had been full of white people it would have won a bazillion awards, even if it was a cable show.

  27. I really want to say it’s gotten better, but that’s probably wishful thinking… *sigh*

    Granted I wasn’t around in the 70′s. But I did recently rewatch Columbo (isn’t that a 70′s show?), and I’m sure I haven’t seen anything as racially offensive these days as some of the stuff I did there. Like white people in black wigs talking in faux-Asian accents and acting the part of Asians. It was unwatchable. And whenever a black character did appear, um… wow.

    So I don’t think things as overtly racist as that appear on networks these days. Which is an improvement. But the dearth of roles for POC today is really problematic.

    And come to think of it, even though you don’t have the sort of yellow-face today like in those Columbo eps., things like Tropic Thunder are similar. It’s excused by the mainstream because it’s supposedly “satire” … :/ So maybe we haven’t made much progress. We just disguise it differently.

    There does seem to be some diversity in crime drama types of series. And Ugly Betty seems to have done well (though I had real issues with the show’s depictions of heavy black women). I don’t know. Two steps forward, one step back? Maybe something like that.

  28. How in the HELL did that show never win an Emmy? Although it had a bit of an issue with under-representing women (and featured a couple of problematic Black mother roles), overall it featured the most diverse, complex, talented, primarily Black cast ever on television. Not only did it have an ass-kicking gay Black man antihero AND a lesbian mommy cop named Shakima, but it was probably the best scripted TV show I’ve ever seen.

    I think you answered your own question. In my opinion, The Wire is the best thing television has ever done, no question.

  29. What was the show with Michael J. Fox, where he had a colleague and friend who was black and gay, but neither defined that character? I want more of that.

    Dianne, that show was Spin City! I remember an episode where the mildly homophobic character (whoever it was with a brush cut) kissed the gay one in a dark room, and the episode was about him admitting he enjoyed it. At the end of the ep he does, and gets the gay dude to kiss a woman through trickery. Oh pomosexuality, will you ever come back to TV?

    The fact that children’s programming does a way better job is in some ways great, and reflects to some extent the handling of gender roles too (in kids’ shows, girls can do anything, and do – in adult programming, often not so much). I wonder if this means that we’re expected to have one relationship with other races/genders as children, and a different one as we grow up. I’m sure a lot of it is down to different corporations owning these different audience blocks, but the message is still there.

  30. [...] Nojojojo at the Angry Black Woman on POC on TV. [...]

  31. let him have at it. who knows, he might work it out better than the other networks catering to us folk.

  32. My son got a call from the production desinger to do some “graffitti style” paining….He spoke of the new network as BET but better for famileis…sounded good till, “…Master P…”
    yeah, well
    we’ll see
    Whoopi and Will Smith are also on the board or supporting in some way- so
    again,
    We’ll see.

  33. that’s painting not paining.

  34. I think it’s getting to a point where TPTB are so scared of how to “treat” a minority character on a show that many of them just would rather not be bothered. I mean, if a character is identical to the other Caucasian characters (but simply happens to be a minority), then you’ve got those of us who will say that said character is too “whitewashed.” (that’s actually a common complaint from the Asian community of Lindsay Price’s character from “Lipstick Jungle”). And if they go in the other direction, then they are accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Someone is going to complain either way.

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