A dedicated cop looking to make a better life for his family moves from a cramped apartment to a house in the neighborhood where he grew up. The catch? The neighborhood isn’t as safe or friendly as he would like it to be.
That’s the premise for ABC Family’s new drama Lincoln Heights. What sets the scripted series apart from other cop shows — or for that matter any dramatic series on broadcast and cable — is that the cast is predominately African-American. With the TV landscape filled with comedy and reality programming featuring predominately African-American actors, there’s a startling paucity of dramatic series targeted to black viewers.
Unlike popular sitcoms and reality fare like The CW’s Everybody Hates Chris and VH1’s Flavor of Love, African-American producers and actors say few broadcast and cable networks are willing to produce expensive dramas with black casts for fear of reaching too small of a niche audience.
In addition, industry observers believe that the proliferation of African-American actors and actresses in mainstream drama serials has made the void of African-American-targeted originals less obvious to viewers.
Still, programmers like TV One executive vice president of programming and production Rose Catherine Pinkney believe that there’s a demand for quality and culturally relevant original dramas among African-Americans and mainstream viewers.
Lincoln Heights is the first dramatic original series with a predominately African-American cast to hit the small screen since Showtime’s Soul Food in 2000 and HBO’s The Wire in 2002. All three series were launched on cable. The last broadcast network to attempt a high-profile series was CBS in 2000, with the ill-fated City of Angels.
Kevin Hooks, executive producer of Angels and Lincoln Heights, said networks have been leery of offering dramas revolving around African-Americans because of fears that such shows won’t draw the mass audience necessary to lure advertisers, which in turn help fund high production costs for one-hour dramas that range from $1 million to $3 million per episode.
Indeed, TV’s track record with such shows isn’t stellar. While viewers over the years have shown a willingness to watch African-American life and culture through sitcoms like Good Times and The Jeffersons in the 1970’s, The Cosby Show in the 1980s, Martin in the 1990s and most recently Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris, the reverse has been true for dramas.
Over the past 20 years dramatic series like Fox Broadcasting’s 413 Hope Street, CBS’ family-oriented Under One Roof starring James Earl Jones and the hospital skein Angels — all of which received critical acclaim — failed to last a full season before being cancelled due to poor ratings.
“It’s pretty clear that network television in particular is an advertiser-driven business and creates a different dynamic for any [minority-themed] show,” said Hooks, who is also executive producer of Fox’s Prison Break. “It makes it very difficult for that specific audience, which may or may not be large enough to support the kind of numbers that network television demands.”
CABLE A BETTER OUTLET
Cable networks — HBO and Showtime in particular — have had a better record of success with African-American targeted dramas.
In its fourth season, which ended in December, HBO’s The Wire — a gritty drama about urban life in Baltimore from a residential and political perspective — averaged 5 million viewers per week through premiere, repeat and on-demand plays combined.
Soul Food, which followed the lives and loves of four sisters, lasted five seasons before ending production in 2004. Showtime would not reveal viewership numbers for the series.
Movie producer and writer Nelson George said the pay networks are more receptive to quality, dramatic fare revolving around the African-American experience, especially since African-Americans make up more than a quarter of both networks’ subscriber base, according to executives close to the services.
“They’re interested in things that have ideas and that are going to open a dialog,” said George, who directed HBO’s upcoming original movie Life Support, starring Queen Latifah as a woman with AIDS dealing with her family. “You can’t come up to them and just say, 'I want to do a black movie.’ It has to have a message.”
Hooks added that niche shows like The Wire and Soul Food — the syndication rights for both were picked up by Black Entertainment Television — can survive more easily on cable because cable networks aren’t as dependent on advertising revenue as the broadcasters.
“It’s my belief that cable is better set up or better serves a show about a specific culture, just by virtue that it’s not completely advertising driven,” he said. “They can support a show that does 4 million viewers a week because they make their money on subscriptions. It’s more conducive to African-American programming, particularly dramas.”
Hooks is hoping that the advertising/license fee hybrid that supports basic networks like ABC Family will help nurture projects like Lincoln Heights. The show is averaging a 0.8 rating and 1.2 million viewers through four episodes, and has increased viewership in the time period compared to last year by 14% (1.2 million to 1.05 million).
“Lincoln Heights was our best launch outside the summer and has upped the time period levels by double digits in all key demos compared to last year, including 21% in adults 12-34,” ABC Family president Paul Lee said. We’re getting great fan response on our Web site and iTunes, and with strong storylines to come, I think this show can really build.”
MORE PROMINENT ROLES
Even with HBO, Showtime and ABC Family’s efforts, the number of dramas with African-American casts is still alarmingly low. Along with the production expense and a desire to broaden viewership, another more ironic pattern is affecting the development of such programs: an increase of African-American characters in mainstream dramas.
African-Americans are playing prominent roles in top-rated shows like 24, with D. B. Woodside portraying the president of the United States, and hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy, where Chandra Wilson, Isaiah Washington and James Pickens Jr. all play high-profile characters.
“We have to pay attention to how much we’ve been integrated into multicultural casts,” said veteran television and film producer Kyle Bowser. “There actually may be more black people on television today than there used to be, but they’re infiltrating multicultural casts as opposed to being all bunched together in a black project,” added the veteran producer, whose production company Res Ipsa Media produced the 2006 Lifetime original movie For One Night.
While TV One’s Pinkney noted the progress among African-American actors, it doesn’t mean that shows with all-African-American casts should be completely eliminated.
“I think it’s really great that those actors are in those prominent roles because that’s what life looks like — life is not an all-white cast,” she said. “But it doesn’t make sense to me that a black drama can’t have great universal appeal much like The Cosby Show did. Viewers will support a black drama if it’s real, relatable and authentic.”
Even so, Pinkney says it will be a long while before such shows become commonplace on cable or broadcast lineups, although African-American targeted TV One will look to develop a drama series within the next couple years.
“Unfortunately there’s still an immediate hesitation among network executives, and because of that [African-American] writers who do get to pitch networks with shows don’t want to take their one shot on something they know will not be met with much interest,” she said. “But there’s a need for black dramas. Just in a way that dramatic television shows the scope of many other American lives, African-Americans should be included in that as well.”