LOS ANGELES – On a recent Sunday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, an overflow crowd gathered hours after services to see a screening of TV Land's The Soul Man, starring Cedric the Entertainer as a Las Vegas singer who uproots his family and moves to St. Louis after hearing a divine calling to become a pastor.
The well-dressed congregants gave a hero's welcome to Cedric, co-star Niecy Nash and TV Land head Larry Jones. Their accomplishment? Putting on one of the few television shows that spotlights a black family.
We're excited about seeing role models for our community and for America, FAME Pastor John J. Hunter said. It's very important for our youth to see the moral foundation of a family. ‘The Soul Man' has to succeed so we can have more shows like this.
Despite the rally, Hunter's faith may be tested in the coming months. The Soul Man may not return. Executives have yet to give a green light for a second season. And that uncertainty underscores a chronic complaint: More than two decades after The Cosby Show broke new ground with its portrayal of a loving, two-parent black family into the pop-culture mainstream, shows about nuclear black families or families of color have all but vanished.
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that building a show around a black family would be a liability in terms of attracting a wider audience, said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. The executives feel that the mainstream or larger groups just would not be interested in a black family.
In some ways, TV has gotten more diverse. A study released by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD) recently concluded that the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on the five broadcast networks – ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS and the CW – are at their highest levels ever, with 31 roles. However, the vast majority of those characters are white; only seven are black.
It's also true that depictions of family life in general have been on the decline for years in television. But those that remain, including the returning Parenthood, Up All Night, The Middle, Last Man Standing and Raising Hope typically revolve around white families (One notable exception is ABC's Modern Family, which includes a white and Latina couple.)
The only returning shows with ethnic families at the center are TBS' Are We There Yet and Fox's animated The Cleveland Show.
Of the new series with a major family component, including NBC's The New Normal and Revolution, ABC's Malibu County and Fox's Ben and Kate, only one new show among the major network lineup – NBC's Guys with Kids about three new fathers trying to hold onto their youth while confronting the responsibilities of parenthood – includes a black family.
But that family, with parents played by Anthony Anderson and Tempestt Bledsoe, is only one-third of an ensemble dominated by white characters.
The near-absence of black families in primetime spotlights how race and cultural issues continue to shadow the TV arena, more than a decade after the four major networks were blasted by civil-rights groups for fostering a white landscape in primetime.
The void continues even though blacks rank as one of TV's most devoted audiences: A recent report by Nielsen revealed that the average black viewer watches nearly seven hours of TV daily, more than any other single demographic.
Among the slate of new fall shows just launched by the major networks, there is only one black lead in a new drama: Andre Braugher of ABC's thriller Last Resort.
Last month's Emmy Awards didn't help matters. The vast bulk of the show's audience, nominees and presenters were white. No black female performers were nominated in the major categories, and the three black actors nominated in marquee categories were shut out.
The trend among scripted programming runs counter to other areas of entertainment, such as film and music, where blacks and other minorities have a more prominent role. Despite Will Smith and Denzel Washington status as major box-office draws, television executives have less confidence that a black lead will have crossover appeal to a mainstream audience, industry experts say. As a compromise, blacks are often integrated into a larger white cast where they are usually limited to a supporting role.