Black Comedy

Why African-American Sitcoms Are Suddenly Hot Properties On Cable
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During a party at a posh Beverly Hills mansion, a cocky, rich celebrity meets up with his friends. When he dislikes the taste of a fancy dessert, he badmouths the chef, who then comes out and makes mincemeat of him. Cue the laughs.

The only thing that makes this cable comedy, Real Husbands of Hollywood, different from others in the same oeuvre across the cable landscape is that all the actors are African-American. The BET show is one of several comedies with African-American actors not only in leading roles but making up the entire ensemble and providing funny, mostly positive images to an underserved audience.

Building on a legacy of successful black sitcoms from The Jeffersons to the The Cosby Show, African-American themed cable sitcoms such as Real Husbands, OWN’s Love Thy Neighbor, TV One’s The Rickey Smiley Show, Nick at Nite’s Instant Mom and TV Land’s The Soul Man are aiming for a demographic that watches 37% more TV than any other group, with market-buying power of $1 trillion, according to a Nielsen report released last September.

“When color is mentioned, the color is typically green,” D’Angela Proctor, senior vice president of programming and production for TV One, said.

For mainstream networks like OWN and TV Land, targeting the African-American audience with quality programming can pay major ratings dividends. African-American audiences spend seven hours and 17 minutes per day of viewing TV — nearly all of it watching live TV and DVR playback, according to Nielsen. That’s considerably more than the overall total of five hours and 18 minutes of TV-watching among all viewers, the ratings service said.

Black women, in particular, watch a whopping seven hours and 34 minutes of TV, nearly double that of Hispanic women, according to Nielsen.

Given the potential viewership, mainstream networks are now offering black-themed sitcoms to broaden their appeal to all audiences, according to Eric Deggans, TV critic for National Public Radio and author of Race-Baiter, a book about race and media. The addition of such shows — particularly for mainstream networks — also helps to improve brand equity by showing a diversity of audience and programming.

“Reaching black viewers is a way for cable channels to round out their audience and the demographics of their audience,” Deggans said. “You have a new demographic that you can sell to the cable systems.”

African-Americans make up 55% of the audience for TV Land’s The Soul Man, starring Cedric the Entertainer as a pop-singer-turned-preacher, compared with 15% of the total audience for the rest of the network’s lineup. The series, which will begin its third season March 26, is among the network’s most watched, averaging 1.4 million viewers.

“Clearly it’s working — we’re bringing in this whole other group of people who are simply not watching the channel on a regular basis,” TV Land president Larry Jones said. “Hopefully, they get exposed to other shows like The Exes, Kirstie or Hot in Cleveland. That’s what our agenda is about — to really be a broad-based entertainment channel — and making shows that are clearly targeted to African-Americans is a part of the mix.”

Black sitcoms are not new to the television marketplace. Shows such as The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Family Matters often finished among the top-rated shows on the broadcast networks during the ’70s, ’80 s and early ’90s, when viewing choices were limited to the Big Three broadcast networks.

In the mid-1990s startup broadcast networks like Fox, The WB and UPN, in an effort to build an audience, launched shows such as Martin, Living Single, The Wayans Brothers, Sister, Sister, The Parent ’Hood and Girlfriends to capture the underserved African-American viewer.

By the mid-2000s, though, as cable networks like BET began to target niche audiences and reality programming began to take hold, the broadcast networks focused on reaching more mainstream audiences with ensemble casts, pushing black sitcoms off network lineups.

TBS, looking to establish itself as a comedy brand, resurrected the genre with the June 2007 debut of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, from writer/actor/producer Tyler Perry. The series followed the humorous and often complicated lives of a veteran fireman (played by LaVan Davis) and his family.

House of Payne’s premiere drew a then-cable record 5.2 million viewers. (BET’s African-American themed dramedy The Game currently holds the record at 7.7 million viewers for its January 2011 premiere.)

A second Perry-produced TBS series, Meet the Browns — based on Perry’s popular Madea movie franchise — generated the second-biggest debut at the time with 4.2 million viewers in January 2009. Perry’s mix of slapstick comedy, spiritual themes and issue-oriented drama has found an audience with African-American viewers as well as mainstream audiences.

“Sitcoms have been what [Perry] has had the most success with, with audiences dating back to House of Payne, Meet the Browns and For Better or Worse,” OWN co-president Erik Logan said. OWN last year launched another Perry sitcom, Love Thy Neighbor, which drew the network’s second biggest premiere audience ever, with 1.6 million viewers on May 29, behind Perry’s first drama series, The Haves and The Have Nots, which drew 1.7 million viewers.

“We’re having some good success in the scripted space, and that speaks well for the connection that we have with our audience,” Logan added.

Unlike 1970s shows such as Good Times or Sanford & Son, which were often criticized for their depictions of inner-city and lower-income black characters, today’s sitcoms feature characters that reflect a more upscale image of African- American life.

NPR’s Deggans said today’s African-American sitcom character — whether it’s rich comedian Kevin Hart on Real Husbands of Hollywood or successful sportscaster Marcus Williams (Michael Jai White) of OWN’s For Better or Worse — for the most part don’t generate the same negative stereotype controversies as Jimmie Walker’s flamboyant J.J. did on Good Times in the 1970s.

“You look at what Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash are doing and it’s hard to quibble with those characters,” Deggans said, referring specifically to Rev. Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine and his wife Lolli, the characters the comedians play respectively on TV Land’s The Soul Man.

Veteran actress Tia Mowry, who stars as a new wife and stepmother in Nick at Nite’s Instant Mom, said that it’s refreshing to see and play positive roles on television that weren’t always available to African-American comedians. “It’s nice to see a family show with African-American actresses and actors that the whole family can sit and watch together,” she said. “It’s important that these characters are viewed and seen in a positive light — it’s nice to see them come back to TV.”

The appeal of reality shows with lead black characters has also spawned the development of scripted shows. Series like Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta — the mostwatched series by African-Americans on cable in 2013 — as well as WE tv’s Braxton Family Values and VH1’s Love and Hip Hop, which feature mostly African-American women in lead roles — has paved the way for the acceptance of black-themed scripted fare.

“The reality shows are sitcoms — some of the most successful ones have a character or two that are highly engaging and quite funny,” TV One’s Proctor said. “If cable networks are seeing African-American women show up in record numbers for these reality shows, it would make sense that they would start creating shows in the scripted space, which is why they are so popular.”

The push by mainstream networks to reach African- American viewers has made the market for acquiring classic black sitcoms more competitive, Procter added. Just this past November, Starz rebranded its Encore Drama as Encore Black, offering such classic 1970s and 1980s sitcoms as What’s Happening!!, Diff’rent Strokes and 227.

The competition, in part, has forced TV One, BET and Centric to diversify their music and reality series-themed programming lineups and off er original sitcoms of their own. Along with the record-setting series The Game and Husbands, BET also airs comedy series Let’s Stay Together, which is set to launch its fourth season in March.

BET sister service Centric is also riding the scripted comedy series wave, airing two series produced by comedian Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios: The First Family, which follows the lives of an African-American president and his family, and Mr. Box Office, starring comedian Bill Bellamy as an actor sentenced to teach in an inner city high school after an altercation with a cameraman.

TV One’s The Rickey Smiley Show, which stars the popular syndicated radio host, debuted in September of 2012 as the network’s most watched series, averaging 621,000 viewers. The network last month returned comedy series Love That Girl! for a fourth season, and is planning to launch a not yet announced third series later this year.

FILLING THE BREACH

“We didn’t have a choice but to produce original shows,” Proctor said. “TV One has historically been an acquisition- based network, but there’s so many more networks in the space of acquiring black content that there’s a drought of content, and there are far more buyers than when we started the network 10 years ago. While we may have been the only person in line 10 years ago to get a show like Martin, as an example … now when it’s time for that show to renew, there are multiple networks at the table.”

Some worry that the cyclical trend of mainstream networks rolling out black sitcoms to reach to African- American viewers only to abandon those shows once they decide to go after a broader audience will eventually take hold again. In addition, the continued rollout of quality scripted content across all genres — particularly those with multicultural casts like Showtime’s House of Lies and VH1’s Single Ladies — could eventually send African-American-targeted sitcoms back to the television scrapyard.

“We’ll soon find out how the industry reacts when one of these shows doesn’t work,” Proctor said. “Will everyone start to pull back the same way CW did, the same way UPN did? They come in and get a foothold in the black space, become successful and then retreat, but we won’t retreat.”

TAKEAWAY

African-American-themed sitcoms have found a home on basic-cable networks targeting that demographic.

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