This past Sunday The New York Times published an article about late-night television hosts. Thus far there was a very well-known face missing from the lineup that includes Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Handler, and Seth Meyers- the incomparable Arsenio Hall. Producers of NBC News also freshly compiled a photo montage of successful late-night hosts, and once more Arsenio’s mug was missing. “If you’re doing a story about late night, all I ask is that you mention me,” Hall kindly asked. Brian Williams ultimately apologized for the slight.
The images of Johnny Carson and David Letterman are synonymous with late-night television. Nevertheless, how can we forget the likes of Arsenio Hall, whose influence from the 80s into the 90s in the entertainment business should not be overlooked? From his flat-top haircut to his signature fist pump in the air coupled with that “Whoo! Whoo!” chant, Arsenio Hall, in the words of journalist Neil Drumming, brought hip-hop to late night.
But is bringing hip-hop to late night television that bad for business? If you look at the flip-side of daytime TV, diversity is all around. Wendy Williams, Steve Harvey, Whoopi and Sherri Shepard of The View, Queen Latifah, Michael Strahan, Cedric the Entertainer, the ladies of The Real, Aisha Tyler and Sheryl Underwood of The Talk, and Carla Hall of The Chew are all representing. The Los Angeles Times even ran two articles in November of last year analyzing the bankability of Black stars on daytime talk show and how different the landscape is for them when the sun goes down. So what are mainstream media giants like NBC and The New York Times trying to tell us by omitting Arsenio Hall’s contributions from their features? Was Hall a victim of human error or something greater?
There’s no excuse for not having more diversity in late-night when there are mega-talented performers such as Mindy Kaling, Lucy Liu, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Don Cheadle, Nicole Beharie, and Dule Hill lighting up small screens on a weekly basis. Not to mention the brilliant behind-the-scenes storytellers like Shonda Rhimes and the unstoppable duo of Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. Yet, there is more at stake, according to the head of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, Darnell Hunt, who states that “network executives almost always favor white leads for primetime shows” as they look for “the broadest possible appeal.” Appeal equals more butts on couches, which equals higher ratings week after week, which equals more advertising dollars.
The game of television is finicky, as audiences never know which of their favorite shows may get abruptly canceled due to poor ratings. Network television executives are less likely to take a chance on something or someone who is unproven and many times will make hiring decisions based on popularity. There are many good reasons why Mariah Carey was paid $17 million for her stint as a judge on American Idol and the fact that she did bring ratings and prestige to the reality show was one of them.
So, who in “Black Hollywood” can bring esteem and money to television networks in late-night? Should the next historic opportunity arise, this person may have to demonstrate their worth alongside established personalities like Craig Ferguson, Carson Daly, and Stephen Colbert, and wonder if this journalistic oversight isn’t indicative of something else.