by Inda Lauryn
The day after Netflix cancelled its show Sense 8 after its second season, mainstream and hipster outlets such as Variety and Dazed noted a cancellation pattern for several “diverse” shows. Many of these shows featured people of color in lead or primary roles in ensemble casts and centered experiences that were not white or cishet. This pattern felt familiar to the 1990s in terms of networks building audiences of color only to abandon them with no reasonable explanation.
For many, the past few years represented a new Golden Age of Black television that had not been seen since the 1990s. Audiences were not at a loss to find Black representation in several varieties and intersections on shows that both had predominantly Black casts or “diverse” multicultural casting. Fandoms found Black characters to love in shows such as Black Sails, This Is Us, Master of None and Into the Badlands as well as those that centered Black lead characters such as How to Get Away with Murder, Underground and Queen Sugar.
Black audiences organized livetweets or found themselves gaining traction as they engaged with their favorite shows in various fandoms. Frankly, Black women often drove these efforts and were sometimes recognized as influencers when it came to making or breaking a show. Yet Black audiences were devastated when several shows centering Black characters were cancelled, including Pitch, Rosewood, The Get Down, Underground and American Crime. But Sleepy Hollow had also received its walking papers earlier after alienating its audience when the show killed off its Black female lead.
May 2017 seemed to bring a halt to this expected new Golden Age of Black television that not only showed signs of diversity in terms of who was represented but also equity in terms of how they were represented. Furthermore, for many who remember the 1990s, this pattern felt familiar in terms of networks building Black audiences only to abandon them with no reasonable explanation. It appears that networks of all tiers are still following an outdated business model, particularly that of the netlets from the 1990s, but fail to regard the impact and influence that social media such as Twitter have given to audience voices.
The Netlets of the 1990s
For most of its life, the Big Three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, held a lock on network television audiences. Cable had begun getting a hold on the market with about seven in 10 households subscribing by 1996. Furthermore, basic cable was not the only competition to the Big Three as premium cable outlets such as HBO gained strong audiences with original programming such as Sex in the City and The Sopranos. However, in the fall of 1986, Fox launched as a fourth broadcast network as competition to the Big Three. It included programs such as Married… with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, 21 Jump Street and eventually The Simpsons. It also garnered a young audience with shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place among other nighttime soaps that failed to last long.
However, Fox became even more competitive when it began featuring programming with Black-led casts. The sketch comedy In Living Color became a ratings winner in 1992 along with the sitcom Martin. The next year, the network premiered the show that would become the protocol for 90s sitcoms that did not focus on the nuclear family: Living Single. In 1994, New York Undercover also generated a devoted Black audience.
Short-lived comedy series such as The Crew and Getting Personal and the dramas 413 Hope Street and M.A.N.T.I.S. included multiracial casts but failed to live past a few episodes. With these shows ending, Fox did not seem interested in taking a chance on shows that centered Black characters, opting instead to focus on hit shows such as The X-Files and Party of Five. It wouldn’t be until the mid-2010s when audiences would see Black characters successfully carry shows on Fox again.
In 1995, the WB seemed to take a cue from Fox. Its daytime and weekend programming focused on children and teens. However, its nighttime programming began with Black-led shows with The Wayans Bros. airing as its first program at its launch. Of its four inaugural shows that was the focus of its Wednesday block, three of them were Black-led shows (The Wayans Bros., The Parent’Hood and Sister Sister) while the third was a dysfunctional family comedy (Unhappily Ever After) in the style of Married… with Children. While the network expanded to include other hit dramas such as 7th Heaven and Charmed, both The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show brought in Black audiences as well.
Just as Fox eventually turned to younger (and whiter) audiences as it gained traction, the WB also followed this example.
By 1997, the network had premiered the successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eventually kept at this audience with shows such as Dawson’s Creek and Felicity. Black-cast programming eventually disappeared from the network. By 2006, the WB announced its plans to shut down amidst competition, especially since it began to lag behind in ratings from yet another netlet that emerged.
UPN also launched in 1995, carrying programming only on Mondays and Tuesdays with its premier. It’s launch included the pilot of Star Trek: Voyager before other short-lived series including Nowhere Man, Marker, Legend and The Sentinel. The network later became home to series such as Veronica Mars, Roswell, Star Trek: Enterprise, America’s Next Top Model and WWE Smackdown. However, the network soon found an audience with various Black sitcoms including Moesha, Malcolm and Eddie, In the House, The Good News, Sparks, All of Us, Girlfriends, The Parkers, and Everybody Hates Chris. There were also infamous missteps such as The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer and Homeboys in Outer Space.
By 2006, The WB and UPN ceased operations to merge as the newly formed CW network. Much of the programming from both of these networks were transferred to this one station. However, around 2008, the network decided to stop devoting its programming to half-hour comedies, opting instead to focus on developing hour-long dramas.
This, of course, meant most of the Black-led shows from the network were cancelled despite many of them including The Parkers being the highest rated show in Black households during their runs.
The rise of the netlets into full-fledged networks showed a business practice many networks (and some industries beyond television) would follow later: build from the ground up with loyal Black audiences then abandon this audience rather than expanding for a more mainstream, read: whiter, audience.
The Beginnings of the New “Golden Age”
In her piece for Variety, Maureen Ryan noted the cancellation of several “diverse” shows but pointed to an attitude that may help explain the boom in shows with diverse representation: “Hollywood is way too quick to pat itself on the back for the smallest and most overdue steps forward when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation — and the industry is far, far too quick to let the backsliding begin. And when that backsliding does begin (as it has many times in the past), many who mouth easy platitudes — instead of doing the real work of increasing the diversity of the industry — very easily and even reflexively turn a blind eye to the return to the status quo.”
This definitely appears to be the case with one show in particular. On September 6, 2013, Fox premiered the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow. Black audiences were excited to see a genre show with a dark-skinned Black woman in the lead role. Throughout its first season, the show trended during its livetweets and even co-star Orlando Jones joined in with fans during both East Coast and West Coast airings. Audiences loved the supernatural aspects of the show, the historical references and the sometimes campiness with a resurrected Ichabod Crane learning the wonders of his new modern world.
However, for Black women, the draw was explicitly Nicole Beharie’s portrayal of Abbie Mills. Abbie was an ideal leading lady with an emotional story arc that included a shady family history that eventually unfolded throughout the show’s run, love interests that included an Asian coworker and Latino ex-boyfriend, and perfect chemistry with the show’s leading man. The Black female fans of the show eagerly waited more than half a year for the show’s second season return at the end of the short first season.
These same fans noticed some remarkable changes in the show’s tone and writing once it returned. Not only was Abbie Mills becoming more relegated to the role of support for her white male counterpart, but she was also sidelined as a potential love interest for a white female supporting character who was never fleshed out to her full potential. Furthermore, a role that should have been fulfilled by the actress portraying sister Jenny Mills was inexplicably given to another white male character. During season two, the show introduced Nick Hawley, a dealer in weapons and artifacts acquainted with Jenny. However, he had the same skillset as Jenny and functioned exactly as she would have had his character not been in the scene. With this in mind, Hawley had no other function than to be a white male stand in for the white male faction of the audience.
As the show rolled on, it became clearer to viewers that Sleepy Hollow had pulled an old-fashioned bait and switch. The show built a solid and loyal fanbase, particularly with Black women, then undid every element that faction of the fanbase praised about the show. As Sleepy Hollow relied more on tired tropes and storylines, the Black female fanbase became even more disenchanted with the show, particularly with fan rumors and speculation of bullying and mistreatment of Beharie behind the scenes.
Finally, at the end of season 3, Sleepy Hollow killed off Abbie Mills, much to the dismay of its fanbase who still watched to support the show for Beharie. Interestingly, Abbie sacrificed herself, becoming lost in a purgatory in the middle of the third season, which led to some speculation that that was supposed to be the end of her story. However, Abbie was rescued and she sacrifices herself again later, but this leads to her death. Those familiar with the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer know that Buffy was resurrected on more than one occasion and her character was never permanently killed. In fact, one death resulted in the co-existence of two slayers, one of them a Black girl named Kendra. While it was hinted that Abbie was only dead in a sense, she is given a burial and her story comes to an end with her giving her life in service to others.
Replacing her with a racially ambiguous woman of color did nothing to bring back this base, who mostly agreed to radio silence when it came to the show. When it returned for season 4 sans Beharie and with a new direction, former fans stayed away in droves and watched its eventual demise as it tanked in the ratings and finally got cancelled.
Fox and Friends
Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow not only recalled Fox’s beginnings in the early 90s but also showed that the network would keep its trend of calling on Black talent to gain an audience base but abandon it seemingly at a whim. The bait and switch occurred again in 2015 with the show Gotham, which touted Jada Pinkett Smith’s character Fish Mooney only to drop the character during the second season. However, her return in season 3 indicates the network learned the value of her character, but Fish Mooney might have a permanent death after her resurrection, much like Abbie Mills, at the end of this season.
These were not the only shows from Fox in recent years to launch a show with the promise of a strong Black lead or supporting character. Empire has been a consistent ratings winner since its 2015 debut and also debunked the longstanding belief that Black-cast or -led shows would not perform well in an overseas market. Wayward Pines and Rosewood did not fair as well and joined a host of other short-lived shows including Almost Human and Minority Report, both of which created an engaged fandom among genre fans yet did not survive to see a second season.
However, with its cancellation of the show Pitch after one season, Fox’s habit of producing shows with strong Black women lead characters, gaining an interested fanbase, then abandoning that base without a clear explanation threatened to alienate this essential part of the fanbase.
Pitch is uniquely pulled in viewers who were not even baseball fans with a show that made Major League Baseball its entire premise. In fact, the show had the full cooperation of the MLB with official uniforms and scenes shot in the actual San Diego Padres Petco stadium, meaning it had to be a costly show the network had invested in.
Pitch created as much excitement as Sleepy Hollow had with its debut. The show’s lead Ginny Baker became an aspirational figure in real life, mirroring the onscreen phenomenon created around the character. However, with its Friday night time slot, perhaps the show did not get the kind of ratings it needed to justify an obviously big budget. This may not provide a reasonable explanation either as its show The X-Files spent four seasons in this slot before being moved to a better Sunday time slot. Yet, Fox cancelled Pitch after only one season of ten episodes.
Like other shows sacrificed at the chopping block at the end of the 2017 spring season, fans of the show began a campaign to get another network or streaming service to pick up the show as Fox had no plans to revive it. These efforts went ahead even though two of the shows male stars, including lead Mark Paul-Gosselaar, had been signed to other shows. On June 9, 2017, fans organized the #PickUpPitch campaign in hopes that streaming service Hulu would pick up the show for at least a second season.
Queen Sugar and Underground
Queen Sugar made a statement about the progressive steps television needed to take with the promotion and eventual airing of the OWN series. With lauded filmmaker Ava DuVernay as the showrunner, Queen Sugar held the promise of being a remarkable series for and by women. DuVernay cemented this with the announcement that the show would have a team of all women directing the show. Many of the other crew members, including cinematographers and directors of photography, were also women.
Queen Sugar had another blessing in its favor: it was greenlighted for a second season before the first episode ever aired. So far, the gamble seems to have paid off. Audiences were struck by the beauty of the portrayals of Black people, especially the stunning cinematography that lit and photographed darker skin in beautiful ways. The also did not shy away from social issues, often making reference to current events and including real-life programs and organizations devoted to social justice.
Perhaps the network home of OWN, under the ownership and word of Oprah Winfrey, provided a safety net for the show along with the fact that it is the network’s highest rated show. However, not even the devoted Black female audience that made it a ratings winner could convince the network to pick up another show primarily led by Black women canceled by its network home: Underground.
Debuting in 2016, Underground took off quickly and built a strong fanbase among Black audiences, even those who proclaimed they were tired of so-called “slave narratives.” The show trended during livetweets and sparked dialogue among history and television fans alike. The show kept its momentum with fans during the second season and developed its Black female characters even further. The show even took a risk when it devoted an entire episode to a recurring character, Harriet Tubman, delivering a speech to abolitionists.
Yet, executives at WGN cancelled the series after two seasons. In it’s official statement, Tribune Media President and CEO Peter Kern said, “As WGN America evolves and broadens the scope and scale of its portfolio of series, we recently announced that resources will be reallocated to a new strategy to increase our relevance within the rapidly changing television landscape. This move is designed to deliver additional value for our advertising and distribution partners and offer viewers more original content across our air. Despite Underground being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season. We are tremendously proud of this landmark series that captured the zeitgeist and made an impact on television in a way never before seen on the medium. We thank the incomparable creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and the great John Legend, along with the talented creative team and cast who brought the unsung American heroes of the Underground Railroad to life. We are grateful to the loyal fans of Underground and our partners at Sony Pictures Television. It is our hope that this remarkable show finds another home and continues its stories of courage, determination and freedom.”
Amid discussion that the new owners of Tribune Media, Sinclair Broadcast, are avid Trump supporters, WGN cancelled Underground along with its highest rated scripted show Outsiders (that also had a strong Black fanbase) and fans immediately launched campaigns to have both shows find new network homes. Outsiders appears to have accepted its fate as a cancelled series, but Underground producer John Legend still holds out hope another network will pick up Underground. However, both BET and OWN declined to give the series a second life, OWN citing its $5 million per episode price tag as the reason for not picking up the series. At the moment, the show appears to be a blatant victim of the Trump administration.
When promotional trailers for Netflix’s original series The Get Down began to appear in early 2016, it touted two things: its $120 million budget and the creative force behind the series, Baz Luhrmann. Ironically, it received little promotion beyond this mention, not even a consistent home page teaser within the streaming service.
Netflix also made some other questionable decisions regarding the direction of the expensive show. The Get Down aired in two parts, the first episodes premiering in August of 2016 and the second part of the season held until April 2017. (The second part had not completed filming before the first part aired.) Even more baffling, the first part had six episodes while the second only had five episodes when the entire series was advertised as having 12 episodes.
Yet The Get Down found its audience. The show touched on the nostalgia of the early days of hip hop and rap as well as a pivotal time in the history of New York City that ultimately had cultural repercussions far beyond New York. Furthermore, the show featured Afro-Latinos and queer characters as fully realized characters and central to the narrative. Although at times the show appeared to be a 12-hour music video, Baz Luhrmann’s stunning cinematic style shined through making it a visual triumph.
The audience for The Get Down not only performed as fans typically perform, but they also pointed out disparities in the ways Netflix treated the casts of the show in relation to another popular series Stranger Things, which with its 1980s setting also relied on nostalgia as its angle. While the children of Stranger Things constantly made red carpet appearances and attended other Hollywood A-list events, the similarly aged young stars of The Get Down received no such treatment. Despite fans’ willingness to overlook the show’s white creative helm, the Black fans of the show seemed to hold no weight when it came to saving the ambitious project.
However, Black fans fared much better with another Black-led show. Coming about a month after The Get Down, Luke Cage was a clear ratings winner, temporarily disabling Netflix’s servers in less than 24 hours of its premier. Fans livetweeted the show (and the wait for Netflix to fix its service so viewers could finish the show) and provided analysis and commentary for days afterwards.
Many factors may have contributed to the show’s success. From the beginning, the Black showrunners and writing room were a point of promotion. Fans acknowledged the complexity and variation in Black experiences of the fictional Harlem community. Furthermore, comic book fans were already familiar with many of the characters, particularly Misty Knight, and latched on to see how they would be further developed. But perhaps Luke Cage’s connection to the Marvel Extended Cinematic Universe would have protected it even if it had not fared well.
Luke Cage is a spinoff of another Marvel series Jessica Jones (itself a spinoff of Daredevil), which introduced the Luke Cage character. Cage’s character is part of the Defenders series that combines the lead characters from each of Marvel’s Netflix shows. However, while a second season of Luke Cage has been announced, its release was pushed to 2019 in favor of another Marvel series centering The Punisher. So while the highly successful show has proven itself a draw, it still does not appear a priority for a network looking to maximize its potential audience.
Netflix also drew Black audiences with several acquired shows, most notably British series Chewing Gum. With its crude humor along with writer and star Michaela Coel’s charm, this show about an array of characters in a London council estate has a devoted following and provides Netflix with a hit show it does not have to produce itself. Meanwhile, original series Dear White People seems to have a mixed reception with many viewers comparing it both favorably and unfavorably to the film. Set on a college campus of a predominantly white institution, this show had a ready made audience from a film that created lots of buzz and possibly resonated with a Millennial audience. Otherwise, Netflix does not have much more of an investment in shows with Black lead characters, which it could do considering it has now surpassed cable in terms of subscribers.
Premium and Basic Cable
Cable outlets may have learned the value of Black audiences within the past few years and decided to tap into that audience with competition from outlets such as Netflix. Premium network Starz has a strong Black audience with shows such as Power, Survivor’s Remorse and its newest hit American Gods. However, American Gods also seems to have pulled a bait and switch as well with the show eventually favoring secondary white characters over the Black protagonist and other Black and brown characters that initially drew audiences. Fandom communities took note of the limited scenes of characters such as Bilquis, the Jinn, Mr. Nancy and Salim while Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney not only received full character development but also entire episodes devoted to their backstories. After one scene in the second episode, Mr. Nancy was not seen again in human form until the last episode of the season. Bilquis finally received more character development, but the Jinn and Anubis still have no story arc other than their relationships with other characters. Even the show’s protagonist, Shadow Moon, began to get less development and did not appear entirely in the season’s penultimate episode. With Black characters appearing only one or two times before being sidelined, Black audience interest in the show dwindled up until the season finale. However, it is unclear how much Black audiences will anticipate the second season with many fans glad to finally get some background on Bilquis and putting together fan theories on the true reason Mr. Wednesday chose Shadow.
Starz fares better with Black-led shows in terms of representation and intentionally targeted a Black audience with many shows. Both Power and Survivor’s Remorse have lasted to see fourth seasons. But like Luke Cage, these shows have well-known names behind them: rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson serves as a producer of Power while LeBron James oversaw the creation of Survivor’s Remorse. With these shows, Starz has critical favorites and a steadily growing audience. Power provides a strong lead-in to the comedy Survivor’s Remorse, and it appears the network has allowed it the room and time it has needed to find its footing. However, IndieWire notes that the industry still has not taken note of the ratings draw of Power even though it is Starz’s second highest rated series. Michael Schneider notes, “African-American audiences consume more television on average, and networks such as OWN and VH1 have also found success by targeting that demographic. ‘Power’ is a phenomenon even as its audience skews heavily African-American – around 75 percent of all viewing. (The audience makeup for network’s comedy ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ is similar.)”
Starz has also drawn in a Black female fandom during the third season of its series Black Sails, a series that works as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The third season saw the introduction of a Black female love interest for one of the main characters, John Silver. Fans had previously criticized the show for its depictions of people of color but willingly gave it a chance for redemption with the introduction of the character Madi in the third season. So far, the Black female fandom has engaged with this ship of John and Madi and has expanded the show’s original audience.
Interestingly, the Black female following for Black Sails follows a pattern among Black female viewers who often boost a show with the promise of a Black female love interest, particularly a dark-skinned object of affection. In fact, this drew many Black female fans to the WGN show Outsiders. While the Black female love interest was not dark-skinned, Into the Badlands had a strong following among Black women with a Black female love interest opposite the Asian male lead. However, Black women were devastated by the loss of the Black love interest, and many have decided not to support the show just as they did with Sleepy Hollow.
Still-Starcrossed and Renewed Hope
Perhaps this disappointment with the cancellation of Outsiders and the fridging of Veil, killing her for the further plot development of another character, from Into the Badlands helped boost excitement for the latest show to come out of ShondaLand: Still Starcrossed. With a lead-in of the first ever Black Bachelorette, the show tapped into Black female romance fans as well as those who love period and costume drama. Furthermore, this show features a dark-skinned female lead who finds herself in the middle of a love triangle as well as many other tropes familiar to romance fans. However, these tropes take on different meanings when they center a marginalized person. This may be part of the more diverse representations of blackness many fans hope to see in television.
Still Starcrossed may have also represented the hope that this new “Golden Age” of Black television is not yet over or a passing fad as it appeared to be in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the show already seems to be headed for cancellation with a change in time slot from Monday to Saturday. There is still hope for science fiction fans who eagerly anticipate the latest in the Star Trek franchise, Discovery, which has both Black and Asian female leads. The CW is adding to its superhero lineup with Black Lightning, which focuses on a Black family headed by a Black male and may include a Black female lesbian character if all goes according to canon. And the new TNT series Claws, with three very different Black women in lead roles, is setting itself up to be a hit summer series of 2017 as it already has the interest of Black women.
In the meantime, Fox’s Lethal Weapon has been renewed while Rosewood officially received the axe. Fox’s 24: Legacy has also been cancelled, ending a Black lead in a now franchise series. All of these shows featured Black men in lead roles and as authority figures in or with law enforcement. Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh is portrayed with a wife and children while Rosewood still had his mother in his life and his Black female assistant was a lesbian. In its function as a spinoff of a successful and popular show, 24: Legacy had the difficult job of winning over devoted fans with Eric Carter essentially becoming the new Jack Bauer, but this incarnation did not translate into a new life for the series.
Yet there may be some hope that many Black audience favorites will find a second life. Many people from these shows including Aisha Hinds are now early contenders for Emmys, which could be a selling point in trying to get Underground a new home. However, no matter what the networks decide in terms of cancelling and renewing its shows, network executives still seem to be looking at outdated methods to determine audience interest.
For instance, they have only recently learned to use DVR usage and streaming services in metrics to determine viewership of television shows. It is unclear as to how executives consider social media influences such as Twitter trending and Tumblr discourse to not only estimate ratings but also to more accurately reflect audience demographics beyond white, male and young. As Isha Aran notes, the pressure put on shows featuring marginalized people tends to not only tokenize them but also “contributes to the baseless logical vacuum that if one diverse show doesn’t work, then it somehow proves that inclusion isn’t worth pursuing, that any form of diversity is a risk.”
Considering that “diversity” has actually been shown to be good for business, it does not make much sense that television networks and streaming services would get rid of the very shows that help them expand their overall audiences. When Variety reported on the results of a study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, the outlet included a very telling statement from the center’s chairman Darnell Hunt: “The problem, as we have pointed out in earlier reports, is that the Hollywood industry is not currently structured to make the most of today’s market realities. The studios, networks, talent agencies, and academies are demographically and culturally out of step with the diverse audiences on which their collective future will increasingly depend.”
This out-of-touch mentality has cost Black audiences beloved cultural entities over the past few years. Yet, network executives who remain overwhelmingly white and male still seem to hang on to old-fashioned (and dangerously wrong) notions that the only piece of the audience that matters most resemble them. Schneider’s piece for IndieWire notes, “‘[African-American audiences] are underserved in television, and yet we keep seeing reminders, especially now, of the power of the black dollar,’ [Starz CEO Chris] Albrecht said. ‘But if you look at the demographics of the [Hollywood] executive suits, it’s not a surprise that there aren’t more shows targeted like this (Power).’” In the meantime, Black audiences still cling to the remnants of an already fading renaissance in representation for the marginalized.