Daytime’s Other Drama

Despite its popularity with black audiences, daytime television discounts black talent in front of, and behind, the camera. These industry insiders are pushing for change.

Tune in to television anytime during the day and you’re bound to see a number of African American faces on screen. Take for instance the personalities hosting syndicated talk shows and court shows such as The View’s Star Jones or Divorce Court’s Mablean Ephriam.

It cannot be denied that African Americans are daytime television’s predominant audience, accounting for 12.6% of the U.S. population, but almost 20% of the 40.3 million daytime’s viewers.

African Americans have had a presence in daytime serials for more than 40 years, although it may have been playing nonessential roles such as maids. During the 1990s, however, the networks did a better job of introducing prominent black characters with intriguing story lines, giving way to rising stars such as Shemar Moore and Nia Long. Still, despite black actors’ improved presence and popularity today, their ability to command long-term contracts is dismal compared to their white co-stars.

The NAACP’s 2003 TV Diversity Report shows that the four major networks have made incremental increases in hiring African Americans for prime-time on-screen roles. Behind the camera, however, such progress has not been made. There are practically no black writers, producers, and directors in the so-called “top echelon of production, which is the nucleus of the industry,” according to NAACP President Kwesi Mfume.

The diva of daytime is billionaire Oprah Winfrey, who hosts and produces the No.1 syndicated talk show, now in its 19th season. Winfrey, who is watched by about 30 million U.S. viewers each week, represents the few top industry players who have staked their claim in daytime television.

The number of African American writers, producers, and technical crew (including unionized hairstylists and makeup artists) don’t fare well in network television. Until October 2004, there was only one black executive in daytime programming at ABC, Jennifer Turner, 30, who now serves as director of current programming in prime time. Industry insiders such as Turner continue to push for greater inclusion of people of color.

Studies by the NAACP and other groups that act as watchdogs focus primarily on prime-time dramas. Daytime dramas, however, churn out 240 to 260 episodes per year. Turner says the sheer volume is 100 times that of prime time drama, which amount to an average of 22 shows per season. Daytime dramas maintain audience interest every week because they don’t stop production in the summers to show reruns. NBC, CBS, and ABC run about 50 hours of daytime serials each week.

Soap operas (named for the generic household products once advertised during these serials) have ruled daytime for more than 50 years but were traditionally targeted toward white suburban housewives. Of the nine network soaps currently running, seven have been on the air for more than 30 years. The longest running is CBS’ Guiding Light, which first aired in 1952.

Historically, soap storylines built around families, matriarchs, and patriarchs have not been diverse. “This is something that has hampered introducing new characters that are persons of color,” says Turner. ABC’s daytime lineup includes General Hospital, All My Children, One Life to

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