FOX Formula 3.0?: TBS, Cougar Town, and the Disappearing Televisual Black Body

June 18, 2012
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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?


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5 Responses to “ FOX Formula 3.0?: TBS, Cougar Town, and the Disappearing Televisual Black Body ”

  1. Jennifer Lynn Jones on June 18, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Thanks for your post, Alfred. I hadn’t thought about the TBS/Tyler Perry connection before this (despite having watched a lot of those series), although in reference to your argument, I had been thinking about changes to ABC Family recently. I did some research on the channel last year, and the early Paul Lee era was explicitly focused on diversity in programming and casting. However, in taking stock with the recent BUNHEADS controversy, the content appears to be a lot less diverse than it once seemed intended to be. Interesting how so much of this history continues to repeat itself. Thanks again!

    • Alfred Martin on June 18, 2012 at 5:11 PM

      ABC Family is also an interesting space (although I don’t readily remember it as a very diverse channel despite its efforts). I think with That’s So Raven and even Greek with its, as Kristen Warner would say, white folks dipped in chocolate, the network, like many others, has become whiter and whiter. But I think what’s most interesting about ABC Family is that it is supposed to feature family friendly entertainment, yet it features shows like Pretty Little Liars, which I would argue does not fit anyone’s definition of family-friendly fare.

      But back to the larger issues I raise in the post, it will be interesting to watch how this all develops with TBS. It seems that the writing is on the wall that black bodies are going to be evicted from this space when all the dust settles. And we can’t continue to assert that black folks “have their space” with BET because that comes along with its own set of representational problems and politics.

  2. Camille on June 18, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    This is indeed a troubling trend which can’t be accidental in nature given the higher rates of viewership in Black and Latino communities. Of course, time will tell if the Fox Formula is fully employed here but we should certainly all keep an eye on this. There are two issues here. The willingness to marginalize bodies as well as the willingness to marginalize viewers. The insult to injury is the marginalization of viewers who were integral to early success.

  3. Myles McNutt on June 20, 2012 at 12:04 AM

    Thanks for this great piece, Alfred, as it nicely sums up something I’ve been pointing out to my students for the past year or so. When tackling representation, the FOX legacy (moving on through UPN/The CW) is certainly an important bit of history, but TBS does seem to offer the closest thing to a contemporary case. As I said to my students, it says something when your brand-redefinition is organized around one of the whitest dudes in show business (O’Brien) despite your channel’s original programming originating from one of the most prominent African American writers working in the same business.

    However, I wanted to get your thoughts on another piece of the puzzle. Like every cable network, TBS relies on syndication in addition to original programming in order to fill out their schedule. While the Conan/George Lopez transition and the Cougar Town acquisition are both great examples of the network’s shift, their decision to strip schedule The Big Bang Theory is the missing link here, one that has an incredibly wide-ranging impact on the network’s identity.

    TBS’ purchase of TBBT was intended as a jump start to Conan’s flagging ratings, and it has largely paid off: I see numerous tweets/headlines about TBS reruns of TBBT outdrawing NBC in recent months, and fewer stories about Conan’s ratings (which remain less-than-thrilling, but haven’t dropped further). However, if TBS sees syndication as a way to draw in a mass audience, are there any sitcoms in the syndication pool which would reflect the same audience as their Tyler Perry sitcoms? Was there any way that cable syndication wouldn’t move them away from their original programming strategies?

    I raise this point not as an excuse, but rather as another way in which the absence of black bodies on network television bleeds into the cable networks that could potentially save it: when TBS needed a boost in viewers, and turned to syndication as an option, network television was not giving them an option to continue to commit themselves to the African American audience that had helped them build a stable of original series.

  4. Alfred Martin on July 12, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Hi Myles, thanks for your thoughtful comments (and apologies for my delayed response). If I am correctly remembering my TV history, TBS’ syndication history has similarly erased black bodies. I remember that at one time they featured reruns of The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. While these two shows are problematic in the reductive discussion to determine their claims to an imagined notion of black authenticity, these shows have now been shuttled off to other cable pastures.

    But in terms of what could be pulled into their syndication stream that could reach a similar audience there is Everybody Hates Chris (which I think BET syndicates now), The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, Girlfriends, The Game (those are the contemporary ones that come to mind right now). TVOne, BET, Magic Johnson’s recently launch Aspire, all seem to manage to build a set of syndicated texts that can fill out their schedules that would presumably attract and retain a black audience — the question is how much (or little) the network (and its advertisers) covet those black eyeballs.

    But what I think is more problematic is that a “Tyler Perry audience” has industrially been coded as black – which means that theoretically those who tune in for Friends or The Big Bang Theory are not expected (or supposed) to stick around for House of Payne or Are We There Yet? And certainly these “black shows” will receive no “mainstream” critical acclaim that would get those who are not already watching interested in consuming these texts (although I am not arguing that they necessarily should). In short, the television is raced in the ways in which we conceive that because a show features black bodies that it will only appeal to black bodies whereas Friends, with its white bodies can be read as universal.