Recently, The Washington Post ran an article on the many black TV shows missing from streaming services. The author, Alyssa Rosenberg, explores a few options: Streaming services focus on affluent, white audiences, or they have difficulties attaining the rights to many black shows. Either way, the article concludes, the impact on our culture is detrimental when the long history of black television is forgotten. Rosenberg writes:
It’s a misconception with real consequences. If television’s past is all white, then of course the current boom in shows starring and created by people of color, from Scandal to Black-ish to Empire to Fresh Off The Boat seem like a new diversion from the past.
She’s right. Whatever the reason, black shows aren’t on streaming services, allowing an illusion of diversity to exist when a network makes even the smallest move toward inclusion. The difficulty of actually viewing these shows, since they’re removed from the way we commonly watch TV in 2016, further hides the influence these shows have on modern minority representation.
My senior year of college, I decided to create an independent study titled “The History Of Black Television.” At my tiny liberal arts school, classes like this weren’t uncommon. If I could take “The Art Of Ingmar Bergman” or an entire class on The Wire, why couldn’t I dive deep into a part of television history that’s overlooked, ignored, or often just forgotten? My professor and I set out to create a syllabus that would include shows that defined the progress of black representation on television—from Beulah and Amos ’N’ Andy all the way up to Scandal and Black-ish—until we realized we were having trouble finding most of the shows we were looking for. A random assortment of streaming services would have a season or so of one show; a few DVD releases were available; but the gaps were obvious. TV history books mentioned these shows—they had to be real. Yet most of what I could find consisted of short, blurry clips.
While some of these shows were playing in syndication on basic cable channels, as a student my access to a TV with DVR capabilities was limited. Like any millennial, I had cut cords and relied on streaming services for all of my television needs. It took a VHS player and an incredibly large, nerdy web of message boards to fill in the gaps. With a PayPal account and a willingness to trust complete strangers with my address, I filled in crucial shows like The Flip Wilson Show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, 227, and Julia. I was shocked by how many series I accumulated. Variety shows, one-season wonders: There were more types of black shows than anything I’d seen on broadcast television in recent history. By the end of the 1960s, three very different TV shows led by black performers had hit their peaks—The Flip Wilson Show, The Bill Cosby Show, and Julia.
The high number of black shows allowed for a variety of issues and experiences to be portrayed. The most successful was Julia, starring Diahann Carroll. At the time, it was the first black show to gain relevant Nielsen ratings since Amos ’N’ Andy, and is perhaps the series most referred to by TV historians when the topic of black TV comes up. Its importance was even recognized by the Emmys in 2013, when Carroll, the first black woman nominated for an Emmy, presented an award with Kerry Washington, whose role in Scandal was being celebrated as an example of modern TV diversity. It was an obvious nod to the relevant history of Julia, but what about the actual show? What about the actual performances made it so synonymous with black television history? The Flip Wilson Show had surprised me with its sharp humor and edgy characters like Geraldine. The two seasons of The Bill Cosby Show, a sitcom featuring Cosby as a high school gym teacher, dealt with realistic topics like inner-city poverty and racism, something I didn’t expect from a man known for the clean-cut world of The Cosby Show. Yet I’d never seen these shows assigned the same legacy as Julia.
It turns out Julia is boring. For a show about a black, widowed, single mother working in a mostly white field, Julia didn’t even attempt to deal with the hardships the lead character’s situation might cause. Her race was barely mentioned, unless as a punchline. Julia Baker was a character tied down by respectability politics—she wasn’t political; she didn’t talk about race; she was the image white audiences wanted to see at a time of riots and mass social change. Contemporary black audiences thought the show was whitewashed and unrepresentative. Even Diahann Carroll said of the show in a 1968 interview with TV Guide:
With black people right now, we are all terribly bigger than life and more wonderful than life and smarter and better—because we are still proving. For a hundred years we have been prevented from seeing ourselves and we’re all overconcerned and overreacting. The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being. At the moment we’re presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negroness.
A misconception had grown around Julia. Without easy access to the variety of black shows available at the time, ratings driven by white audiences were the only evidence of what had and hadn’t been historically important. In the context of TV encyclopedias and ratings, it made sense. Julia had outlasted The Bill Cosby Show. The Flip Wilson Show was a variety hour whose influence on modern black dramas and sitcoms wasn’t as clear as Julia Baker and Olivia Pope standing on a stage together. This isn’t to say Julia didn’t play an important role in black representation on TV; it certainly did. But it’s only when we can actually watch it and other black shows that the limits of that role become clear.
When I look at the black shows currently available on streaming services, I see the usual suspects: A Different World, The Cosby Show, The Bernie Mac Show. Successful, critically acclaimed, award-winning shows that only tell a portion of a story that’s shared with less acclaimed shows like The Parkers, Moesha, and Girlfriends. The complexities these latter shows provide to the history of black representation on TV—both good and bad—are subject to the whims of YouTube. The niche cable channels that run these shows in syndication are mostly unknown to “cord-cutters,” while streaming services grow in popularity and offer access to an unprecedented number of shows. At a time when these services have every episode of perfectly average-to-horrible shows like Grounded For Life or Saved By The Bell: The College Years, black TV shows are seemingly held to a double standard: They must prove their historical importance or success to gain access to streaming platforms, robbing viewers of the chance to appreciate them in context.