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Making the Whole Year Special

2/06/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

The annual celebration of Black History Month often brings forth special cable shows celebrating the achievements and talents of African-Americans, but many industry observers contend that such programming is relevant and necessary throughout the year.

Nowhere is that argument more evident than in children’s programming, where cable networks such as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Noggin/The N and Black Family Channel are providing impressionable African-American children with programs that not only feature predominantly black casts, but also offer shows where African-American characters play prominent roles in otherwise multicultural ensembles.

Much like their adult counterparts, African-American kids are watching more and more television each year. African-American children age 2-11 watched an average of 32 hours of television a week in 2003, up from 30 in 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.

Viewing among African-American teens, aged 12-17, increased by 12.5% to 35 hours in 2003 compared to the prior year, according to Nielsen.

But some television executives are concerned about the medium’s lack of positive images for young African-Americans and the effect it may have on their self image and development. The visuals that they do see are often derived from rap music and pro athletes, and many believe that kind of content needs to be balanced with other examples of life experience to give African-American children a well-rounded picture of life today and the potential opportunities in front of them.

“The problem in television has always been about balance,” says actor, director and producer Robert Townsend. “If you’re constantly fed a diet of nothing but rap, rich athletes and bling-bling, a child might say 'I don’t think I can make in this world, because I don’t see any models that look like me. And I can’t rap or play basketball.’ So I think a variety of images and programming is real crucial for our kids.”

Nickelodeon executive vice president Cyma Zarghami adds, “It’s not fair to show one side of any group, so you don’t always want to have girls wearing pink dresses and screaming when they see bugs, and you don’t want to ever see African-Americans portrayed only in music and sports.”

Network executives also say it isn’t enough to just place a token black character in more-or-less cameo appearances. It’s important, executives say, that African-American characters are shown prominently in a diversity of roles and situations so that kids view themselves through a number of social and economic prisms.

Powerful Positive Role Models

“There’s nothing more powerful than creating these positive, successful role models, specifically when it’s a kid,” says Disney Channel executive vice president of original programming and production Gary Marsh. “A kid watching will say, 'Hey that’s me — I can do that,’ or, 'That’s what I’m going through.’ If we can model these characters in a positive way, then that’s the best we can do.”

Disney, in particular, has been adept in achieving those goals with several shows, including its highest-rated series, That’s So Raven, starring former The Cosby Show star Raven-Symoné. The sitcom focuses on the exploits of an African-American teen and her middle-class family and friends.

Disney has also had success with its three-year-old animated series The Proud Family, the network’s first animated show targeted to tweens. “We focused on the universality of family dynamics,” Marsh says. “It happens to be that [writer Bruce Smith] is African-American, and he draws African-American characters. But it’s not a black show. It happens to be a show that features African-American characters.”

Nickelodeon has also found universal appeal with such shows as Romeo, featuring rap star Lil’ Romeo, as well as preschool shows such as the Bill Cosby-produced Little Bill. Nickelodeon, through sister service The N, is also premiering a teen-targeted, miniseries, Miracle’s Boys, which chronicles the experiences of three African-American brothers living on their own.

Such fare allows kids of other races to view African-Americans and each other as equals and appreciate the richness and value of other cultures through programming that often taps issues and messages that are universal.

“What’s amazing about Raven is that it crosses demographic, psychographic, gender and race boundaries like no other show we’ve put on television,” says Disney’s Marsh.

Reach One, Teach One

But not all programming has to be entertainment based. Atlanta-based Black Family Channel’s recently-launched urban kids programming block aimed at kids and young adults not only offers reality and scripted fare, but also educational shows like spelling and grammar show The Thousand Dollar Bee and teen talk show Lisa Knight and the Round Table.

The network also features Mogul Minutes, a series of short vignettes showcasing African-American entrepreneurs like the hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and Black Enterprise chairman Earl Graves.

Townsend, who serves as Black Family’s president of original productions, says it important that kids be exposed to positive role models and messages while being entertained. “If kids don’t see themselves in the lead roles, they won’t attempt to do it,” he says. “Visually it’s very important that you see role models. Kids have to be able to say 'If I want to be a scientist, I can be a scientist,’ or, 'If I want to design a car, I can design a car,’ rather than, 'Black people can’t do that because I’ve never seen them do it.’ ”

March