BY GREG BRAXTON
LOS ANGELES TIMES (MCT)
LOS ANGELES – On a recent Sunday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), an overflow crowd gathered hours after services to see a screening of TV Land’s “The Soul Man,” starring Cedric the Entertainer as a Las Vegas singer who uproots his family and moves to St. Louis after hearing a divine calling to become a pastor.
The well-dressed congregants gave a hero’s welcome to Cedric, co-star Niecy Nash and TV Land head Larry Jones. Their accomplishment? Putting on one of the few television shows that spotlights an African-American family.
“We’re excited about seeing role models for our community and for America,” FAME Pastor John J. Hunter said. “It’s very important for our youth to see the moral foundation of a family. ‘The Soul Man’ has to succeed so we can have more shows like this.”
Despite the rally, Hunter’s faith may be tested in the coming months. “The Soul Man” may not return — executives have yet to give a green light for a second season. And that uncertainty underscores a chronic complaint: More than two decades after “The Cosby Show” broke new ground with its portrayal a loving two-parent black family into the pop culture mainstream, shows featuring nuclear Black families or families of color have all but vanished.
“The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that building a show around a Black family would be a liability in terms of attracting a wider audience,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
“The executives feel that the mainstream or larger groups just would not be interested in a Black family.”
In some ways, TV has gotten more diverse. A study released by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD) recently concluded that the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on the five broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS and the CW — are at their highest levels ever, with 31 roles. However, the vast majority of those characters are White; only seven are Black.
On the decline
It’s also true that depictions of family life in general have been on the decline for years in television. But those that remain, including the returning “Parenthood,” “Up All Night,” The Middle,” “Last Man Standing” and “Raising Hope” typically revolve around White families (One notable exception is ABC’s “Modern Family,” which includes a White and Latina couple.)
The only returning shows with ethnic families at the center are TBS’ “Are We There Yet” and Fox’s animated “The Cleveland Show.”
Of the new series with a major family component, including NBC’s “The New Normal” and “Revolution,” ABC’s “Malibu County” and Fox’s “Ben and Kate,” only one new show among the major network lineup — NBC’s “Guys with Kids” about three new fathers trying to hold onto their youth while confronting the responsibilities of parenthood — features a Black family.
But that family, with parents played by Anthony Anderson and Tempestt Bledsoe, are only one-third of an ensemble dominated by White characters. In the pilot episode, the Black family was given relatively short shrift while the White couples had more developed story arcs.
Subsequent episodes of the series, which so far has drawn lackluster ratings, have given more focus on the black family, and to Anderson and Bledsoe. But the near-absence of Black families in primetime spotlights how race and cultural issues continue to shadow the TV arena, more than a decade after the four major networks were blasted by civil rights groups for fostering a “White landscape” in primetime.
The void continues even though African-Americans rank as one of TV’s most devoted audiences: A recent report by Nielsen revealed that the average African-American viewer watches nearly seven hours of TV daily, more than any other single demographic.