Recently the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing over whether Comcast cable could continue with its takeover of NBC Universal’s stable of channels. During the session, committee member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) lamented the lack of diversity on NBC and prime time television in general. While it is true that NBC has earned the nickname “No Black Characters” in the almost 20 years since “The Cosby Show” went off the air, the station has done a major about face by hanging their entire fall line-up on the new show “Undercovers.”
The real issue, however, isn’t whether there are black people on television anymore. That argument should be put out to pasture, because believe it or not we are in a golden age of black television.
“Undercovers” stars Boris Kodjoe (“Soulfood”) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Dr. Who”) as a pair of married and retired CIA agents drawn back into the espionage game when one of their old friends is in danger. Produced by superstar J.J. Abrams, who has made such hits as “Alias” and the recently departed “LOST,” the show is being called a mixture between “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the old ’80’s series “Hart to Hart.” What is amazing about this program is that “Undercovers” is the first network drama centered on African-American characters in the history of television. And while this is worth noting, the fact is that while observers have been clamoring for the old networks to diversify they seem to be ignoring the fact that cable has been providing quality programming for minority families for years.
The explosion of cable channels over the last decade has built up a library of quality black shows for all ages that trump just about everything on the major networks. The four major networks’ (NBC, Fox, CBS, CW and ABC) share of the primetime audience has flat-lined at 39 percent for years while more and more Americans are tuning in to cable during prime time. Between re-runs of old classics such as “Martin,” “The Cosby Show” and “Family Matters,” recent syndicated hits such as “The Game,” “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Everybody Hates Chris” – not to mention the new Tyler Perry sitcoms that show up every other month – you can just about watch black programming all day and never turn your remote to any of the old networks.
For the first time in history, African-American audiences have much of what we have been asking for: quality programming featuring African Americans in diverse settings, roles and even family styles. While CBS was handing out bit parts on “CSI,” HBO was churning out “The Wire”; while ABC came up with whitewashed shows such as “Brothers and Sisters,” Showtime was producing “SoulFood.” Network programming is not where the current battle over images and access needs to be waged when so much progress has been made on cable. That’s akin to protesting in 2010 about where we can sit on the bus when the argument now is more about where the bus routes go and who has the maintenance contracts.
This is not the say that cable is a paradise for minority roles or that the networks should be entirely let off the hook. Fox still produces racist garbage such as “The Cleveland Show.” There is still a tendency to cast African-American men as either sexually non-threatening or gay. Shows such as “Lincoln Heights” and “Tru Jackson VP,” which are targeted at African-American girls, seem to have an unwritten rule that all the love interests must be white guys. And yes, the casting of Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw in “Undercovers” suggests that the brown bag test for prime time might still be in effect.
However, whereas in the past these glaring issues had to be ignored or accepted in order to enjoy any television, today there are enough choices for African-American audiences on television (not to mention on-line) that we need not suffer garbage just to see a black face on the television screen.
So this fall I encourage you to sit down and watch “Undercovers” with your family. NBC’s prime time is anchored on the shoulders of two talented African-American actors and for once we know that if the show is good then “No Black Characters” has finally caught up with cable. If the show is bad, for the first time in years we have other options. You can always pop in Season 4 of “The Wire.” And if worse comes to worse, you know there’s a new Tyler Perry sitcom running out there somewhere.