“The Cosby Show”? “The Jeffersons”? “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”? If none of these shows sound familiar to you, then you’ve definitely missed a big chunk of television history. These TV shows represent some of the most successful television sitcoms ever. The fact that they all had long TV runs on major networks such as NBC, and CBS is a true testament to just how much of a phenomenon these shows became. What all of these shows share in common is that they starred a completely or majority black cast, something that has not always been easy to succeed with. That’s not the only thing these shows have in common. They all share certain formula’s that led to their success on large television networks and they also have avoided certain choices that typically lead to the downfall of many other black TV shows.
Firstly, Let’s have a look at history’s most successful black TV shows. Narrowing things down, these four shows appear to be the most successful black television shows of all time.
Originally a spin off from 1970s sitcom “All in the Family,” the show featured Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford playing George and Louise Jefferson, a wealthy married couple who owned a chain of dry cleaners. The show aired from 1975 to 1985.
“The Cosby Show”
The Huxtables are still, till this day, one of the most memorable families on television. Featuring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad playing a married couple that were both successful in their respective careers being a doctor and a lawyer. The show was on air from 1984 to 1992.
“A Different World”
As a spinoff from “The Cosby Show,” the show was designed by Bill Cosby to follow the lives of college students at historically black Hillman College on the verge of successful careers. The show aired from 1987-1993.
“Fresh Prince of Bel Air”
Just the fact that you can recite the entire opening song for this show just proves how successful the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” was. The show was about a rich family in Bel-Air, who brings in cousin Will to keep him off the streets in Philadelphia. It aired from 1990-1996.
Okay, so what exactly do all these shows have in common? Well, the most painfully obvious one would be that they all feature families or characters that are well off. Either they already have successful careers or they are about to embark on successful careers. Secondly, they all featured characters growing up in positive environments and any reference to drugs, poverty or racism is minimal. Third, they all featured characters that were great role models as the characters always made the right decision in the end.
By looking at the most successful shows on major television networks, it appears as though most black families are doing well, and that families who suffer financially are the minority. Unfortunately these portrayals are not an accurate reflection of society.
One in three black men will go to prison at least once in their lifetime. Black teens have the highest pregnancy rate. Black people have 21% less married couples than the average Americans, as well as more than double the amount of single parent homes than the average American.
So what happens when a black television show attempts to accurately portray some of the hardships facing black Americans today?
Well, in most cases, the television show does not last. Examples of these would be shows like “My Wife and Kids” or “The Hughleys.”
“My Wife And Kids” seemed to be on its way to having long term success after having major success on ABC. So what caused this show to suddenly lose ratings? Some critics argue that the son Jr. getting his girlfriend pregnant on the show led to a decline in ratings and its ultimate cancellation.
Now, let’s look at “The Hughleys” which had a successful first season on ABC, however, soon got cancelled by the big next after two seasons. Although, it was picked up by UPN for an additional two seasons, this doesn’t hide the fact that it failed on a major television network. So what exactly was wrong with the show?
Despite the show having many comedic aspects, one of the underlying themes of the show was tumultuous race relations. Darryl Hughley would constantly get accused of losing his “blackness,” the neighbors not being used to having a black family and his kids having identity issues at school. Is this the reason that viewers lost interest in the show? Not necessarily, but considering that historical black shows always had a way of hiding the reality of the situations, it wouldn’t be surprising if these blatant race related story lines were often too “real” for viewers who watch such a large network like ABC.
This is not to dismiss the fact that there have been a lot of successful black shows on smaller networks such as UPN, The WB, TBS, and BET. These shows include “Moesha,” “Girlfriends,” and “The Parkers” as a few examples. Shows like “Living Single,” and “Martin” also enjoyed some success on FOX; however, these shows had a primarily black audience limiting its crossover potential.
It is still blatantly apparent that crossover into major US networks such as NBC, CBS, and ABC is still greatly limited. Essentially, to have success on any major television network, the show must portray a black family to not only be successful and but to also not fall victim to any of society’s troubling issues or fit into any typical African American stereotypes.
To create a black sitcom that deals with any of society’s hardships such as poverty, the economy or racism appears to be television suicide in mainstream America.