The dynamics of power wielded by television has always privileged the perspective and voice of white males. Even classic Black sitcoms like: "Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons," and "Good Times," were created, produced, and/or written by mostly white men.
For the first (and only) time in history the decade of the 1990s saw the emergence of a new brand of televisual Blackness that dominated the small screen. These programs were produced and written by a critical group of Black image makers and entertainment creatives who shared a vision for a more inclusive and multi-layered TV landscape. Individuals like Yvette Lee Bowser (creator of Living Single), Tim Reid, (creator and star of Frank’s Place), and Debbie Allen (producer and director of A Different World) worked to develop multidimensional stories and bring more complex Black characters to the mainstream. Their work (among many others) helped to launch what is now referred to as “1990s Black New Wave Television.” At the peak of its cultural power, the 1990s Black New Wave Television boasted some twenty-four TV shows in prime time on broadcast networks that featured predominately Black characters and themes. A few prime examples of these programs include: "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Living Single," "In Living Color," "Family Matters," "Roc," "A Different World," "Martin," and "South Central."
How did this happen? A major factor was the purchase of the Fox Network by Rupert Murdoch. He hired programming executives at Fox who implemented a strategy that focused on targeting specific segments of the television market. The network designated its niche as young audiences, particularly in large urban cities. If they could corner that demographic they believed they could compete with the "Big Three" networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC. Thus, Fox began its romantic fling with Black-American viewers that lasted several years and produced an increase in Black television programming like never before.
If you notice the shows listed above have a heavy hip-hop influence. The purchase of the Fox network coincides with the emergence of hip-hop as a commercially viable commodity. So white-owned media corporations were more open to exploiting the Black cultural expression of hip-hop for its potential to increase their profit margins. And for a period of a little over 10 years Black audiences were treated to more complicated and diverse TV characters. However, once the Fox network deemed itself sufficiently mainstream they quickly abandoned their Black programming in an effort to create new shows that targeting white youth audiences, which advertisers considered to be a more “upscale” demographic.
Nevertheless, 1990s Black New Wave Television generated unique shows that challenged public conceptions of what Blackness could be, as well as challenged the thematics of innocence (and ignorance) regarding television’s role in the restriction of possibilities placed upon Black lives— as a way controlling social destinies along the axes of identity that determine social power in America.
Professor Artel Great is an award winning actor, Independent Spirit Award-nominated filmmaker, social practice artist, public speaker, cultural critic, and founder of ProjectCatalyst.com. He is also a cinema and media scholar who is an expert on the intersection of film, television, media culture, race, and society. Professor Great is currently teaching Television History and Culture at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.