Last week, I detailed the rise of the 1990s Black New Wave Television. And many people have responded and asked “why did it end?” This week I’ve decided to respond and chronicle the fall of the 1990s expansion in Black TV.
At a cultural moment imbued with a heightened sense of public political correctness, the 1990s Black New Wave Television represented the promise of social progress. Many of the Black TV programs during this period ("Roc," "In Living Color," "Martin," etc.) engaged the cultural politics of diversity while situating audiences (irrespective of race) within the domain of multiple Black experiences.
Capitalizing on the successful programming strategy of targeting young urban audiences created by the Fox network--- smaller networks were launched, namely, WB and UPN in 1995. These mini-major networks implemented the same targeting as Fox, which resulted in what one scholar called “televisual ghettoization.” This refers to the trademark “low brow” Black sitcoms produced by the WB and UPN networks including: "The Wayans Brothers," "The Jamie Foxx Show," "Malcolm & Eddie," and "Homeboys From Outer Space."
Moreover, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 marked the first regulatory overhaul of U.S. telecommunications law in over 60 years--- amending the Communications Act of 1934, which precluded major film studios from owning TV networks. As a result, the Telecommunication Act of 1996 created an outbreak in corporate mergers, takeovers, and acquisitions in the television industry. This act of government deregulation was signed into law by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, essentially stripping down television ownership rules & allowing movie studios and other big media players to become more aggressive in buying out smaller stations.
Inadvertently, this new law also initiated a steep decline in the production of television shows featuring predominately Black casts as we marched toward the new millennium. UPN continued producing Black sitcoms until it merged with the WB in 2006 to become the CW network. "Girlfriends," "The Game," and "Everybody Hates Chris" represented the last Black sitcoms on network television during this period. These shows continued to air on the CW after the merger, until "Girlfriends" was cancelled in 2008 and the latter two were cancelled in 2009. Remarkably, no new Black shows emerged on network TV until "Blackish" in 2014.
In the final analysis, the results of the process of media consolidation and conglomeration initiated by the Clinton administration’s Telecommunication Act of 1996 has had a hugely adverse impact on American media, particularly for Black folks. Major consequences of this deregulation has manifested in a dismal lack of originality in Hollywood entertainment and a disheartening level of sameness across music, movies, and TV--- thanks Bill.
Dr. Artel Great is a media scholar who specializes in Black cultural production and popular culture at the intersection of film, television, media, race, and society. He is also an award winning actor, Independent Spirit Award-nominated filmmaker, social impact artist, public speaker, and cultural critic. In his free time, Dr. Great is a professor of American Television History and Culture at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.