Where are TV’s Obama-like characters?
Long before he set out for the White House, Barack Obama sought to adjust the colors on America’s TV sets.
Four years ago, fresh off his star-making keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama challenged the television industry to live up to its responsibility as the country’s “most powerful media” and accurately reflect the nation’s population. “TV ought to reflect the reality of America’s diversity and should do so with pride and dignity, not with stereotypes,” he told the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. But as Obama prepares to move into the White House in January, he and his family will be hard pressed to find blacks like themselves represented on any of the major networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox.
In fact, not only will they have great difficulty locating any black family in a leading role on the networks, they also will see it’s nearly impossible to find a scripted comedy or drama that features a young person of color in a central role.
Although the networks’ prime-time slates are packed with more than a dozen comedies and dramas revolving around family life or involve characters who are related (from “Brothers & Sisters,” to “Two and a Half Men,” to “Dirty Sexy Money”), almost all of them have predominantly white casts. A black family has not anchored a network series since “The Bernie Mac Show” left Fox in 2006.
Whether the presence of a popular African American president and his charismatic family will affect the racial dynamics of prime time is an intriguing question. The subject is an uncomfortable one for the networks, as most high-ranking network executives and diversity heads declined to talk about the issue.
And people in the black creative community disagree about the prospects -- some even saying Obama’s presence may actually raise the bar for their work.
The only African American family regularly on prime time network television is on CBS’ “The Unit,” where Dennis Haysbert (who played a U.S. president on Fox’s thriller “24") plays the leader of an elite special ops force. And while an increasing number of blacks and other minorities has scored regular roles on series (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Heroes,” “Fringe,” “Heroes,” “Lost”), those performers are largely relegated to supporting or minor roles.
Though the development season is in full gear, there does not appear to be on the horizon a series that would take up the cultural torch of “The Cosby Show,” the groundbreaking comedy featuring what conservative commentator Karl Rove on election day called “America’s First Family.” The only African American family that would anchor an upcoming major series is animated -- “Cleveland,” a spinoff of Fox’s “Family Guy.”
(Two other black family shows are on cable -- ABC Family’s acclaimed but struggling “Lincoln Heights” and TBS’ “House of Payne,” which is popular but blasted by critics who say it contains broad characters and offensive stereotypes.)
Instead of answering inquiries, CBS, ABC and Fox submitted statements declaring their commitment to diversity while pointing out their individual progress.
CBS’ chief of diversity, Josie Thomas, would not comment. Thomas is based in New York, while the network’s prime-time shows are produced in Los Angeles. She is not involved or consulted on casting decisions.
Other executives point to the ratings failure of series with predominantly minority casts or central characters such as last season’s Latino drama “Cane” on CBS, that network’s “City of Angels,” ABC’s “Daybreak,” NBC’s “Whoopi” and “The Tracy Morgan Show.”
TV historian Tim Brooks, who co-wrote “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” said: “Audiences can relate to diversity, but it’s still difficult for families in the suburbs to immerse themselves in that world. TV is still struggling with dramas with a black setting.”
Still, Paula Madison, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBC Universal, said the landscape of television is likely to undergo a dynamic change: “Obama in the White House will expand and broaden the conversation about diversity in ways we don’t even recognize. I see him as an African American who is more global in perspective and experience. His experience is different than most African Americans, and that will force a different kind of conversation.”
Some prominent African American creative forces behind comedies that featured black families see a tougher road ahead. They say Obama’s presidency may present even stiffer challenges for the black creative community.
Ali LeRoi, executive producer of the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” about a black family in the 1980s, said that though family shows inspired by the comedy of Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Bernie Mac and others have been mainstream hits, they’re seen as “anomalies” by network executives.
Meanwhile, some writers and producers who have pitched series to the four major networks featuring black families say they have met repeated resistance from executives who claim shows centered on black people will not attract mainstream audiences.
“I’ve pitched these projects with main black characters and have been told, ‘We just can’t see that,’ or, ‘No one will watch that,’ ” said Felicia D. Henderson, creator of “Soul Food,” a drama about a black family based on the popular movie of the same name. The series, which premiered on Showtime in 2000, ran for five seasons.
Added Henderson, now a co-executive producer on Fox’s “Fringe”: “My work experience is that I’ve had no luck getting a series going that are centered around people like me. It was impossible for dramas. Now it’s difficult in comedy.”
Veteran producer John Forbes said he sparked a flurry of interest several years ago at NBC when he and his partner developed “Fox Hills,” a drama about an upper-middle class black family straddling in two worlds -- the affluent and the struggling.
“Everyone seemed to be very excited,” said Forbes, the executive director of the Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center. “It went all the way to the top. Then one key executive said they couldn’t give it the green light because they were afraid of being blasted by the NAACP if the series was canceled.”
Now the real pressure will be on black writers and creators to step up their standards, said D.L. Hughley, who starred for several years in the family comedy “The Hughleys” before his current stint as the host of CNN’s “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News.”
Hughley said the election of Obama “has challenged us as artists. Just because there’s a black president won’t mean the next day we won’t have significant challenges in the community. And we will have to speak with a cadence that the rest of the country will accept.”
Part of that challenge will be creating dramas, comedies and characters that will draw large audiences across the board such as “The Cosby Show.” Cosby and others have said producers looking to imitate that show’s formula did not stay faithful to the emphasis on integrity, family and education.
Added “Soul Food” creator Henderson: “I hate to say it’s our own fault. As black producers and writers got their own shows, the visions and premises became hipper and cooler. It became more specific. There was nothing left for general audiences.”