A couple of events have converged which have gotten me thinking about race and the treatment of black bodies on television. ABC’s now-cancelled Cougar Town aired its season (and series) finale on May 29th on its original network ABC shortly after the announcement that TBS had picked up the series and will begin airing new episodes in 2013. The second event was my attendance at a panel at the ATX TV Festival in Austin that focused on TBS, called “TBS: Very Funny” (the network’s tagline) while I had been in the process of reading Kristal Brent Zook’s Color By Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. So, what do these things all have in common? I argue that TBS’ agreement to air new episodes of Cougar Town may signal the next network to employ the “Fox Formula” whereby market share is built courting black viewership, only to be discarded once a critical mass of mainstream viewership is attained.
After Amos ‘n Andy and Beulah, black bodies were invisible until television’s turn to relevance in the 1970s when shows like Julia, Good Times, That’s My Mama, and The Jeffersons featured black actors in starring roles and placed the experiences of black protagonists front and center (although Julia‘s claim to blackness is still contested). Then came Fox in 1986 to pose the first threat to the “big three” since the DuMont Network’s failed attempt in the 1950s. To get a toehold into the marketplace, Fox used a counterprogramming strategy that focused on creating programming targeted at “urban” (which is always code for black) viewers by featuring shows with black stars, almost all of them comedies including In Living Color, ROC and The Sinbad Show. Once they became a force to be reckoned with (and purchased the broadcast rights to NFL Sunday Night Football), black viewers, and hence “black shows” were no longer needed and were unceremoniously dumped form the network (Fox Formula 1.0). The WB and UPN (later merging to become the CW) employed a similar strategy in the early part of this century (Fox Formula 2.0).
This brings me back to TBS, whose first foray into original programming was 2007’s House of Payne, a Tyler Perry-produced show that can be termed a black sitcom. After the initial success of House of Payne, in 2009 TBS premiered another Tyler Perry sitcom, Meet the Browns, based on the play and film of the same name as well as Lopez Tonight, a late night talk show starring comic George Lopez. Two years later, Are We There Yet?, based on the film of the same name, premiered on the network (alongside the premier of Conan after Conan O’Brien’s very public fight with NBC over the fate of his late night talk show). Here is where I locate the first inking that TBS might employ Fox’s very successful formula. Less than a year after Conan premiered on the network, Lopez Tonight was cancelled. The network announced the show would be cancelled on August 10, 2011 and the final episode aired the following day. And Are We There Yet? is also apparently cancelled as it no longer appears on TBS’ list of shows on its website.
At the ATX TV Festival’s “TBS: Very Funny” panel, Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence discussed how great it is that the show is being picked up by TBS. And it is great that the cul-de-sac crew is not permanently leaving the airwaves. It remains one of the few shows that make me laugh out loud. But with the acquisition of Cougar Town and the upcoming premier of the mainstream (read: white) Sullivan and Son, one wonders what is going to happen to the network’s “black shows”? Certainly, shows run out of stories to tell. And even more are cancelled because of low ratings (particularly if those ratings do not include enough “right/white” viewers). But when black shows help to put new networks on the map, it is troubling that they ditch them in favor of more “desirable” demographic groups.
As networks offering original programming continue to proliferate, the argument has been made that while the big five networks are overwhelmingly white, that cable still represents a place for minority bodies to be represented. However, there are several problems with this argument. First, arguing that cable offers a place for black bodies ignores that cable is not “free TV” and there is a socioeconomic privilege inherent in paying monthly for cable (assuming that these representations occur on basic cable, rather the more premium tiers). Second, and perhaps more importantly, if we allowed ABC, CBS, and NBC to push representation of minority bodies to Fox, and then allowed the big four to push it to UPN and the WB and now the responsibility rests with cable, where does the ghettoization of black televisual bodies end? Does it end when black bodies are again symbolically annihilated?