‘A Different World’ And Why We Don’t Have More Majority-Black Television Shows

Over at the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff has written an installment of that site’s 100 Episodes series on A Different World, the last majority-black show to crack the Nielsen top ten, but it’s really an opportunity to discuss the end of the requirement that television broadcasters and television production companies be owned by different organizations. And in turn, Todd uses the end of those regulations, by Bill Clinton’s administration, to explain the decline of independent television production companies that were both more likely to and more capable of producing content about people of color and blue-collar characters. He explains:

When A Different World debuted in 1987, by far the most powerful production company in TV was Carsey-Werner Productions, even though the company had only one show on the air, The Cosby Show. The Huxtables so dominated the television landscape at the time that Carsey-Werner could afford to be picky about follow-up projects, and A Different World was the first Carsey-Werner series to make the air after Cosby. (The next, Roseanne, also went on to be a Nielsen top-10 mainstay and was the series that finally toppled Cosby’s reign.) Run by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who had both been comedy development executives at ABC in the ’70s, the company was fond of recruiting outsider voices, particularly stand-up comedians, then building television series around them. The company produced a handful of series before Cosby, but Cosby made Carsey-Werner’s name and bought it the financial room it needed to be choosy with future projects. The Cosby Show was built around Bill Cosby’s voice, and he wanted to do a show to counteract many of the images of black families elsewhere in the media. He wanted two successful parents with five children also primed for success. He wanted stories that were very small, occasionally almost conflict-free, the better for Cosby to start riffing. And as the show ran, he wanted to reflect on the black experience in the United States, on the greats who had made the kind of life the Huxtables enjoyed possible.

There are a lot of reasons television is as white—and in other ways, as conservative—as it is. But the decline of independent production companies, and of a system that gave them power, makes it much, much more important to attract the attention of gatekeepers inside of organizations that have consolidated economic interests. It’s what makes it so important that Shonda Rhimes is using her power as a producer and as someone with a solid track record of hit shows for ABC to promote the work of Issa Rae, who made her name through television distributed online, and what makes it depressing that Tyler Perry, who could act as a similar facilitator, doesn’t lend backing to other creators of any race or gender.

Catching a television gatekeeper’s eye has always been a difficult thing. And it can seem inexplicable who gets noticed, and who gets an opportunity to get execute their vision, whether it’s Rae or Lena Dunham, and who doesn’t. But as Todd’s piece points out, part of the problem is that there are now fewer gatekeepers whose attention is available to be caught, and they are less independent from the dual financial pressures of trying to sell both shows and advertising. You can quibble about who they let in the door. But if we care about changing what we see on television, it makes sense to focus more on where the doors are, how many of them there are, and who has the ability to turn the keys and the knobs.