Technology Shapes Black TV Representation

ajchristian's picture

It is not clear the recent rise of Black representation is an overall increase in the number of black workers and stories in media. If we consider television, there were arguably more black sitcoms in the 1990s than the present. Throughout most of the 2000s the number of black writers either stayed flat or declined while the number of series dwindled, mostly a result of deregulation that gave more power to corporations in the late 1990s. The recent rise in black representation must be seen in the context of years of neglect of the black market and changes in technology and distribution.

The advent of cable and then web distribution profoundly impacted black representation. Cable introduced competition for audiences in the 1990s and broadcast networks responded with more black shows. Black audiences historically serve this function of “surplus,” an audience to be drawn upon when more “valuable” audiences are in short supply, as documented by Kara Keeling, Kristal Zook, Herman Gray and other scholars. Similarly, by the 2010s, broadcast and cable networks started to face more competition from each other and from new web-based entrants like Netflix. For the new players, black representation became a way to brand distributors as “edgy,” like when Netflix ordered Orange Is The New Black or how VH1 used Love & Hip HopBasketball Wives and later RuPaul’s Drag Race to re-brand that channel. Jennifer Fuller found evidence of this trend as even in the early 2000s, when new cable networks like HBO and Lifetime used black shows to attract buzz and differentiate themselves from legacy players.

Blackness as a branding strategy in a more competitive TV landscape has meant black characters are more likely to show up in a wider range of genres. With almost 500 original long-form series released every year, it no longer makes sense for networks to restrict black representation to sitcoms. Now we have more dramas like Queen Sugar and The Haves and the Have Nots, genre hybrids like Empire (musical and drama with some comedy) and Atlanta (a more dramatic and experimental sitcom), narrative reality shows like the Real Housewives of Atlanta and Black Ink Crew and competitive reality shows like MTV’s Wild N’ Out and Drag Race.

Short-form indie TV shows are also playing a role in this open (if temporarily) market. Best exemplified by Issa Rae, who went from YouTube to HBO in a few years with her hit series and range of efforts in indie distribution and development, web-grown content is filling gaps bigger players are missing. Long before Black Panther the film, there were a number of indie web series about black superheroes, not to mention pirated versions of BET’s animated series on YouTube. Black characters in indie shows are more likely to be queer, gay, lesbian, transgender, Muslim, non-American and generally more flawed than their mainstream counterparts carrying a heavier burden of representation. Recent web shows range from The North Pole about a Muslim woman and black men explicitly fighting gentrification in Oakland, Seedsabout four black women in their early twenties unconcerned with respectability, and two feature-length musicals by Todrick Hall, including Straight Outta Oz, a biopic of a gay black man, and Forbidden, which imagines an alternate universe where black gay and lesbian relationships are the norm and straight white people are an oppressed minority. There is also a new generation of talk show hosts like Franchesca Ramsey (Decoded), gurus and vloggers like Evelyn From the Internets, and sketch artists like Quinta B. These are just a handful of the stories and storytellers not traditionally counted as part of the rise in black representation.

Therefore, we might say that if there is more black representation in the current moment, it is more likely distributed through new distribution platforms and perhaps with fewer resources – shorter episode orders, smaller writing teams, fewer producers, lower production budgets – than in previous moments when black culture was in demand.