It’s been said that Black Television is on its last leg—and these grumblings have only increased in the last couple weeks. Between The CW’s cancellation of the three-year-old dramedy,The Game, and Spike Lee’s latest diatribe comparing Tyler Perry’s TBS series, House of Payne and Meet the Browns to the works of Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat***, you’d be hard-pressed to find an unoccupied soapbox in all of the black community.
But even though it sucks that Mara Brock Akil’s second show got the same abrupt and unsung sendoff as her first (Girlfriends), there are a few more perspectives to consider here, other than the one that decries The Man’s Foot on the Black Filmmaker/Showrunner’s Neck.
The first is this: Mara Brock Akil had two multi-season shows with all or predominantly Black casts. Girlfriends lasted eight seasons. Eight. That means it was on as long as The Cosby Show. That means it aired much longer than much better shows—Black, White, and Other. It also yielded a spin-off that lasted three seasons, an even rarer feat. Here, Mara pulls off an amazing hat trick, besting the creators of NBC’s white, ten-season darling, Friends, whose one sorry spin-off, Joey, barely made it through Season Two (and please note here that Joey didn’t get a “proper series finale,” either—though arguably, it didn’t “deserve” one).
All this begs the question, why should we lament the loss of Girlfriends and The Game, when both are in ubiquitous syndication on network and/or cable stations daily (The Game airs in hour-blocks on BET three times a day)? Yeah, okay. We never got to see Joan exchange vows with Richard T. Jones in a grossly over-promoted series finale. Sure. We’ll never know if Tasha and Kelly ever reconciled, because The Game had to rush its ending. But don’t cry for Mara, Argentina. Girlfriends was top-rated for a lot of its run; The Game had a very loyal cult viewership. This woman will work (and probably even show-run) again (even after publicly voicing her disillusionment).
Another noteworthy point is this: these two series were given their chances to thrive and they did. Their “sudden” cancellation has less to do with the network’s unwillingness to let their black shows shine than with the writers’ strike that overshadowed the success of most shows that aired in 2007. The industry still hasn’t recovered from the hits it took when the whole town was forced to shut down production for over a half-year; just look at the diminished quality of the shows that did survive.
By industry standards, The CW is still an upstart network. That means it doesn’t have money to throw at the budgets for shows with average viewerships of 1.5 million viewers in their most recent seasons (as was the case with The Game and Everybody Hates Chris). In a simple numbers crunch, their white teen one-hour dramas (Supernatural, Gossip Girl, Smallville) gross twice as many weekly viewers (even in rerun weeks). Please note that Smallville is in its eighth season.
For a network that has to make drastic budget cuts, a workhorse like Smallville and a freshman sensation like Gossip Girl would make more sense to keep. Apparently, teens (and not just white ones) watch more TV, targeted to their demographic, than post-adolescent minorities watch shows targeted to theirs. Since Girlfriends/Game target audiences skewed older and their viewerships were smaller overall, they got canceled.
Some would argue that they never saw a wraparound bus ad for Girlfriends or The Game; ergo, these shows didn’t get the marketing blitz that Gossip Girl and its ilk did. To that, I say: a. I have seen bus ads for Girlfriends, at least, in urban communities, and b. why would the network shell out as much in advertising for those shows, when they likely projected half the viewership for The Game as for Gossip Girl?
I’m bogging myself (and you) down in minutia here, but suffice it to say: this whole Black Television thing isn’t as simple as ‘cism. More appreciation for the shows we’ve had (many of which you can catch on TVOne all day, every day) and more support for the ones we’ll have in the future (and if anyone thinks for one minute that there’ll never be another original black show on network or cable, he/she is illin’) are more productive uses of energy than complaining about how we’ve shortchanged.
Have you glanced at your TV Guide lately? Everybody’s being shortchanged.
*** The Spike Lee comments provide enough fodder for a whole other article. But here, it has to be said that Tyler Perry’s Tyler Perry Sitcoms are still on the air and as heavily promoted as they are because Black people watch them. A lot of Black people. It isn’t because TBS only wants to see “buffoonery” on the air, when it comes to Black programming. It isn’t because Tyler Perry’s main purpose for being is to Set The Race Back 200 Years. Plain and simple, it’s because those shows are top-rated. And they’re top-rated because people find them entertaining—more entertaining, in fact, than soberer, more substantial, much better written shows with multicultural/Black casts. Is it fair to those who’d rather see the latter thrive? No. But there are fewer of you high-brow viewers than there are House of Payne fans. It is what it is.