How The Black Sitcom Died On Network TV… And Was Reborn On Cable

Movies & TV

It’s hard to imagine now but over a decade ago and mostly thanks to the networks UPN and WB nearly a dozen black sitcoms were permanent fixtures on the air. They included Sister Sister, Malcolm and Eddie, Moesha, The Wayans Bros., For Your Love, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. The big three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) contributions to this set were ABC’s The Hughleys and NBC’s Cosby. This trend continued through the mid 2000s and other popular shows joined the lineup like UPN’s The Parkers and ABC’s My Wife and Kids. But then in 2006, the two underperforming networks on the air UPN and WB merged and formed The CW and obliterated this small screen Diaspora. And in its wake only a smattering of black sitcoms could be seen after mushroom cloud dust settled. And all of the series—Everybody Hates ChrisGirlfriends and The Game—aired on the CW.

Fast forward to 2010, EHC and Girlfriends have long been canceled while The Game has found a second new life and home on BET (airdates to be announced soon.) In fact, basic cable has become a new locale and friend to the black sitcom. BET will also be launching a new sitcom produced by Queen Latifah in the upcoming months, and has shot a pilot starring Tracee Ellis Ross, called Reed Between The Lines currently awaiting to go series. Over on TBS, Tyler Perry has the network staples Meet The Browns and House of Payne, and Ice Cube recently debuted his new executive produced sitcom, (based on the film), Are We There Yet? which got picked up for 90 episodes over the summer. Now there is also new buzz that other basic cable stations will soon be announcing plans for original, scripted shows starring mostly black casts before year’s end.

So after many funeral processions and death marches it would appear that the black sitcom has indeed been resurrected and will live once again, this time on basic cable. Over on the major networks ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, that in the past have aired shows like The Hughleys, Charlie & Co., The Cosby Show and Roc, sitcomland is not so much a mostly white one but a ‘sometimes’ integrated one. With the occasional black character [The Office] or two [30 Rock] inhabiting a show.

But now thanks to cable, which has changed the face of television with groundbreaking hits like The Wire, The Sopranos and Sex and The City, maybe the present and future black sitcoms (and more black dramas) of 2010 might go on to revolutionize the genre. And maybe those shows will endure and end up surviving on the air longer with lengthier television running lifespans. Because it appears not only black laffers are endangered species on the big four networks. The new Fall 2010 spy drama Undercovers, the only mainstream series in TV history to  star two black actors— Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw— in the lead roles is already in a numbers slide and underperforming. The show’s ratings dipped 24% percent—the highest of any new series its second week on air. And in this volatile network TV climate, most series aren’t given the time to find an audience. As of October three new Fall 2010 TV shows have already been canceled; FOX’s Lone StarABC’s My Generaton and NBC’s Outlaw, so fans of Undercovers might be nervous about that show’s future on the Peacock network.

But back to comedies on TV, just what does the future hold for the black sitcom? Whether you watch it live on your TVs, stream it, DVR it or view it on your computers the only real answer is to tune in to find out.—Ronke Idowu Reeves

What do you think? Do you watch the current black sitcoms on cable? Will you watch the new ones? Which were some of your favorites? Share your thoughts.