The population of the United States is more diverse than ever, but you wouldn’t know it by the TV guide. The number of roles for African-Americans has improved…slightly. There were over 30 Black actors and actresses on the primetime pilots scheduled for last Fall, and sprinkled throughout ensemble casts like Grey’s Anatomy. However, predominately minority casts are few, and largely regulated to cable channels like BET and TBS. For better or for worse, reality television is leading the way for diversity on TV. And that may not be such a bad thing.
Thanks to attractive economics, the reality format has come to rule the airwaves. Reality programming is cheaper than traditional programming in every way imaginable. It requires less equipment, a smaller crew, and fewer paid performers. Networks see reality television as a saving grace to balance the price of programming across their schedule.
Viewers and critics often lament the Black sitcoms of yesterday, complaining that shows like The Jeffersons, Martin, and Girlfriends are nonexistent. But, sitcoms are in decline overall. The popularity of reality television has come at the expense of the sitcom. In 2002-03, reality’s share of the top 10 prime time show audience almost tripled to 63%, while sitcoms’ share declined by more than half to 17%, according to historical data from The Nielsen Company. The television business and viewers’ taste has changed. It’s a safe bet that we will never see the amount of scripted Black sitcoms we had in the 90’s again.
Admittedly, most of reality television relies on well-worn stereotypes of women and minorities to shape its characters. Basketball Wives is not doing the image of Black women any favors. Even in showslike Survivor, minorities aren’t cast positively. Diversity means differences. Differences often stoke conflict, and conflict equals ratings. Watching Bad Girls Club can give one the urge to weep for the careers of talented out of work Black actors; however, is it possible that reality television can uplift, as well as tear us down?