In most respects, BET’s “Reed Between the Lines” fits snugly within the safe cookie-cutter mold of the traditional family sitcom — successful, attractive parents with adorable kids tackle the daily challenges of life and resolve them in less than 30 minutes.
The upbeat comedy, starring Tracee Ellis Ross (“Girlfriends”) and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (“The Cosby Show”) as the heads of a loving family, recalls the subject matter and tone of “The Cosby Show” — the 1980s program also built around an African American family that helped revive the sitcom genre 25 years ago with a smart and gentle mix of humor and poignancy. (Jamal-Warner starred as Theo, Bill Cosby’s son, in the Emmy-winning series, which ran for eight seasons on NBC.)
But “Reed Between the Lines” is also an unexpected pioneer these days — it is one of a handful of prime-time shows centered on a family of color. Despite hundreds of new TV channels and the popularity of “The Cosby Show,” and subsequent series featuring minority families such as “My Wife and Kids,” “George Lopez” and “Ugly Betty,” ethnic families are still a rarity on the small screen today.
Family comedies once dominated the networks decades ago, but now these programs have had been a tougher time breaking into prime time as audiences have gravitated toward edgier fare with more mature content. Of course, there are still family comedies on the air, but of those almost all of them focus primarily on white families — “The Middle, “Up All Night,” “Raising Hope” and “Last Man Standing,” for example. TBS’ “Are We There Yet?” and Fox’s animated “The Cleveland Show” are the only other family-oriented comedies starring African American families. And mixed-race or ethnic families, such as on ABC’s “Modern Family,” are also scarce.
“I’ve seen this movie before,” Bill Cosby said in a recent interview. “How is it that there are people of color who are CEOs of companies, that are presidents of universities, but there is no reflection of that on the networks? It is arrogance and it is narcissism. Even the commercials have more black people than the programs.”
Network honchos, particularly at the four major networks, continue to stress they consider diversity to be a priority both in front of and behind the camera. But progress has been slow in both places. A survey conducted by the Directors Guild of America of more than 2,600 television episodes from 170 scripted TV series for the 2010-11 season found that white males directed 77% of all episodes, and white females directed 11% of all episodes. Minority males directed 11% of all episodes and minority females directed just 1% of the shows, according to the DGA survey.
“Look at the huge number of comedies. There is no black presence,” said Doug Alligood, a senior vice president at BBDO, a New York-based ad agency. “We’re back to where we were in the ‘80s.”
The new slate of mid-season shows and next year’s development season seems to hold the promise of more diversity, according to media analyst Brad Adgate. NBC said it was moving ahead with a pilot for a family comedy starring rapper Snoop Dogg. Meanwhile, CBS announced earlier this month that the comedy "¡ROB!,” starring Rob Schneider as a lifelong bachelor who marries into a tight-knit Mexican American family, will air in early 2012.
“I really do think that the absence of minority comedies is cyclical,” Adgate said. “It’s so hard to get a hit comedy no matter what, and ethnicity doesn’t really matter as opposed to how good the casts are.”
But, depending on their ultimate content, the shows with Schneider and Snoop Dogg have the potential of raising more concerns if they are bogged down by old stereotypes. Schneider, the star of movies like “The Hot Chick” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” is famous for broad comedy, not nuanced character studies. And Snoop Dogg, whose music career has glamorized violence and drug use, appears to be an awkward fit with NBC’s stable of well-scrubbed stars like Tina Fey, Christina Applegate, Whitney Cummings and Will Arnett.
The creative team at “Reed Between the Lines” hopes to emulate “The Cosby Show” in its positive depiction of a family of color. And despite being on a channel that targets a primarily African American audience, they want to reach a mainstream audience with their message.
“We were clear that there had not been a show like ‘Cosby’ since ‘Cosby,’” Warner said. “We are in no way looking to re-create that show, but we did want to re-create that universality and positive family values that ‘Cosby’ represented. Neither Tracee or I were interested in a ‘black show.’ We are telling family stories as opposed to black stories.”