by Viacom, the corporate giant that also owns MTV, BET, and Showtime). Christina Norman, general manager of VH1, has the authority to green-light projects, and industry insiders say she is diversifying VH1′s programming. VH1′s ratings are up 100% this year.
Still, African Americans have come a long way on network television. In the late ’50s, advertising agencies were unable to convince national clients to buy time on NBC’s The Nat “King” Cole Show for fear that white Southern audiences would boycott their products. This eventually lead to the show’s downfall.
It would take almost 40 years after The Nat “King” Cole Show was cancelled before African American representation behind the scenes increased. Girlfriends’ Akil says she is encouraged by the success of shows produced by African Americans. “I feel like I’m making an important contribution and I’m proud of that. I also think that with more of our shows on the air like Eve with show-runner Meg DeLoatch, more African Americans will be able to rise through ranks to the executive producer level.” Among the more prominent people to do so is Half & Half producer Bowser, who started as an apprentice writer on the Cosby spin-off, A Different World, and later became the first African American woman to have two network programs airing at the same time — Living Single and Lush Life. In total, Bowser has brought six series to network TV and has a deal with CBS to develop a comedy series. “I always look at the landscape for the unexplored territory,” Bowser says.
Going forward, black executives and creative talent are optimistic about opportunities for African Americans in TV. Says Salim Akil, husband to Mara Brock Akil and a writer for Showtime’s Soul Food, “We will be able to green-light projects one day, but it will be a struggle. I don’t look at it in terms of people letting us do something — it’s inevitable. Things move and progress.”
For now, it appears cable is leading the way. But between continued pressure from advocacy groups and successful black writers, producers, and television shows, a change could be in the script. Stay tuned.
– Additional reporting by Marcia A. Wade
A Decade of Growth
While African Americans have had a long history on television, the last decade has shown the greatest growth in the number of black-created or produced programs. Though by no means complete, the following are highlights of some of the more popular shows with strong African American involvement behind the camera.
|Damon Wayans||My Wife and Kids||2001–|
|Yvette Lee Bowser||A Different World||1987–1993|
|Bill Cosby||The Cosby Show||1984–1992|
|Winifred Hervey||In the House||1995–1999|
|Fresh Prince of Bel Air||1990–1996|
|In the House||1995–1999|
|Will Smith||The Fresh Prince of Bel Air||1990–1996|
|Yvette Lee Bowser||Living Single||1993–1998|