TV's Casting Call Has An Image Problem


Earlier this month the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) handed out its annual Image Awards celebrating African-American achievements in the entertainment business.

With regard to television shows, TBS’ Tyler Perry House of Payne, Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven and CW’s Everybody Hates Chris deservedly took home honors in the best comedy, best kids and best comedy writing categories respectively.

The shows would have also merited praise if the civil rights organization offered awards in the category of best shows on television featuring predominately African-American casts.

Then again, those shows wouldn’t have had much competition. 

And it seems the pool of contenders is getting smaller and smaller every year.

Two weeks ago the CW last week quietly cancelled the dramedy series Girlfriends, which followed the lives of four successful African-American women, after eight seasons on the air.

ABC Family has yet to renew its family-police drama Lincoln Heights for a third season, although indications are that the series – which follows the exploits of an African-American police officer who moves his family back into the rough L.A. neighborhood he grew up in – will return sometime in 2009.

HBO is pulling the plug on its critically acclaimed, gritty urban series The Wire after five seasons of exploring the complex lives of Baltimore’s urban dwellers, police and political forces.  

Former Cosby Show child star Raven-Symone has even outgrown her huge Disney Channel tween hit That’s So Raven and has moved on to the big screen, hitting the road next month with comedian Martin Lawrence in the movie College Road Trip.

Many will say there isn’t a need for shows like Girlfriends with prominent African-American casts because more black actors are being featured in mainstream shows with multicultural casts like Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy – the latter winning the NAACP’s Image Award for best drama series– that better reflect the multicultural makeup of the country.

Indeed there seems to be more opportunities for African-American actors in today’s multi-channel television environment. But the problem is that most of them are playing sidekicks or best buddies to their white counterparts and not as leading men or women.

There aren’t enough successful, self-assured African-American lead characters that appeal to all Americans, but that African-Americans in particular can identify with and embrace as positive role models who happen to look like them.

It’s ironic that in a year where an African-American man is positioning himself to become the most powerful leader in the free world, black television actors and actresses are mostly filling cabinet roles on the small screen.

 Both the broadcast and cable networks can certainly do a better job at developing scripted fare that can provide a greater array of images on the screen – and more shows for the NAACP Image Awards committee to judge.