In a recent CNN segment, for example, host Chris Cuomo stated that in order to use his power to change culture, his show needs to talk about race issues “when there is not someone who is dead in the street.” Ellen DeGeneres similarly wants to use her talk show to help educate audiences and herself “about black people’s lives and about a black person’s experience.”
These efforts join a long history of television personalities and executives responding to social uprisings by revamping programming to try to shine a light on injustice. Yet, earlier efforts sputtered as the spotlight on racial injustice faded. While in the 1960s, liberal media reformers advocated for more diverse programming to reach wider audiences, conservatives later mobilized to reject these efforts and double down on the importance of providing programming that served a purported universal “American family,” with shared values and interests. This left little room for engagement with racial concerns, except in moments of crisis.
In the months following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots in more than 100 cities, FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson said television could do something “really constructive … to ease racial tensions.” The networks agreed and took immediate action.
ABC ran a six-episode series titled “Time for Americans” that featured unrehearsed live “conversations between blacks and whites.” One segment called “Can White Suburbia Think Black?” focused on suburbanites who claimed to be “color blind” and did not see black people as “Negroes.” CBS followed suit with its own seven-part documentary, “Of Black America,” about the “black side of American history.”
In addition to these summer special news reports, the fall television lineup that year featured more than 21 recurring black cast members in sitcoms and dramas (as opposed to only six black actors in the 1967 season), leading TV Guide to dub 1968 the “Year of the Negro.”
The belief that the television industry had the power and the responsibility to influence the civil unrest that roiled the country was reflective of a type of cultural liberalism that developed in 1960s Southern California and took advantage of the proximity to the television and film industries.
After the 1965 Watts Riot, Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg created the Watts Writers Workshop. The project sought to give a voice to those affected by antipoverty efforts and an outlet to channel their frustrations about urban reform through artistic expression. By 1968, the workshop extended beyond composition courses and included classes on screenplay writing, acting, television and film editing, motion-picture-camera operation and film production. Participants learned how to apply these skills to mass mediums so that they could find employment in the entertainment industry while also influencing the content on television.
The Watts Writers Workshop’s success and the possibilities it offered underrepresented communities inspired the development of similar media-focused programs in the late-1960s and 1970s. Bill DuBois, a black cameraman for NBC, joined with the University of Southern California’s Department of Telecommunications to create an organization that specialized in training underprivileged African Americans and Mexican Americans for technical and production positions in media. Similarly, the Writers Guild Open Door Workshop was established to teach film writing to racial minorities.
By the 1970s, training workshops extended from Southern California grass roots organizations to national efforts. Even famed producer Norman Lear’s production company, TAT Communications Co., created its own Minority Writers Workshop in 1975, advertising in Jet Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
These programs offered professional training to African Americans in an attempt to diversify an otherwise white industry and provide a pipeline of writers of color to make television shows more realistic. They also enabled networks to address growing criticism by black activists over discriminatory hiring practices and the way the entertainment industry perpetuated racist stereotypes. The NAACP said television should portray the “richness and diversity” of black lives, rather than limiting their roles to menial characters.
By the 1970s, networks sought to capitalize on these demands. Increased representations of nonwhites dominated prime-time sitcoms in particular, with shows such as “Good Times,” “Chico and the Man” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” among many more. These socially relevant programs allowed networks to tap into a younger consumer market that was generally more interested in social and political issues.
But attempts to diversify the entertainment industry were not always smooth. Disagreements over the intended audience of this new programming created public tensions between white producers and nonwhite writers and actors. White producer Allan Manings, for example, considered “Good Times” a show about economic disparity through the lens of a black family, whereas many of the black writers and actors believed that the show should focus on black family values notwithstanding economic hardship.
Manings reflected how producers and networks continued to maintain a colorblind approach, making production decisions primarily on trends and ideas, not racial subject matters. This focus on making the most relevant programs meant that as social movements faded from the forefront of American lives in the 1980s, television as a mechanism for social commentary also diminished. The rise of cable and Black Entertainment Television (BET) contributed, pulling away an audience that might otherwise have looked to network TV for content addressing the programming needs of black Americans.
The lack of diversity in the industry compounded these forces. A 1989 report found 93 percent of producers for 30 network programs were white. That same year, Jeff Wallace of the Writers Guild explained that between 1987 and 1989, only eight writers out of roughly 225 trainees in screenwriting training programs for people of color had been placed with a television series.
In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the television industry once again took ownership of its shortcomings and pledged a newfound focus on the issues and symptoms of systemic racism that communities of color continued to face. One news director admitted local stations focused on the “ratings-grabbing action” of fires, shootings and high-speed chases more so than the underlying conditions that contributed to those breaking stories. On the first anniversary of the L.A. riots, seven stations devoted special reports to the causes and solutions of social unrest.
Entertainment programming also used the L.A. uprisings to challenge viewers to consider the broader conditions that led to the riots. The producer for the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” explained that their episode on the topic depicted the wealthy characters Phillip (James Avery) and Vivian Banks (Janet Hubert-Whitten) realizing they “moved away economically and physically, but also philosophically and morally” from the neighborhood they grew up in, which was affected by the riots. Even “Doogie Howser, MD” included an episode where Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) learned about his own social unawareness after the emergency room was filled with riot victims. But even these efforts fell short because they showed racism as an isolated incident, not a systematic issue.
Despite past efforts to respond to civil unrest through meaningful television programming, networks historically felt like race politics should drive programming only during moments of political upheaval. Ultimately, these efforts reflected the colorblind perspective of producers and executives who failed to consider the prevalence of institutional racism in the industry and the fictional programs they created.
The question as television again pledges to rectify past failings and address the problems of systemic racism, as it did in the late 1960s and in 1992, is whether the medium can be a consistent vehicle for spotlighting these issues and fostering social change? Or will the efforts that will undoubtedly emerge in the weeks and months to come simply fade as soon as the topic is no longer on the front burner? The lesson of the past is that such efforts are easy to launch but harder to sustain.
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