Seeing a television show with a predominantly black cast may not cause much of an uproar in 2020, but 30 years ago, any advancement in our representation on-screen was cause for celebration. Sure, the previous two decades had given us a handful of classic sitcoms – The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World among them – geared toward a black audience, but 1990 marked the beginning of a period during which Tinseltown would open the flood-gates. Television behemoths like ABC (Family Matters, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper) and NBC (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) continued to tap into the urban market, which, by then, had become a jackpot for ratings, prompting other networks to follow suit by shifting their own programming. FOX, in particular, had turned itself into a serious competitor in short order. Launched in 1986, the network quickly emerged as a favorite among the 18 to 40 demographic, with groundbreaking programs like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, New York Undercover, Roc, and The Sinbad Show all making their debut during the early ’90s.
This renaissance reached a fever pitch when The WB, which would become a central hub for black entertainment on the small screen, was launched on January 11, 1995. A joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Tribune Broadcasting, the formation of The WB Television Network was first announced in 1993, amid deregulation of media ownership rules. Taking a page out of FOX’s book, The WB braintrust included a number of the network’s former executives, most noticeably FOX’s original President Jamie Kellner, and Programming Chief Garth Ancier, both of whom served at the helm during the networks launch. While the major networks often presented sterile images of black households and characters that were meant to be relatable to mainstream audiences, only FOX had tapped into the energy and aesthetic surrounding hip-hop, which had become a driving force in pop culture at that point. The WB would help fill that void in a big way with programming that not only reflected the vibe of the streets, but embraced the art of the music and the artists that made it.
This was evident from the network’s launch, with the debut episode of The Wayans Bros. immediately setting the tone for what was to come. The first program to ever air on The WB, The Wayans Bros. starred brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the younger siblings of actors/comedians Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. Following stints on the final seasons of In Living Color, as well as roles in various films and television shows, respectively, Shawn and Marlon were tapped by The WB to create and star in their own sitcom, giving the duo creative license to bring their vision to life. Set in Harlem, New York, The Wayans Bros. centered around the lives of Shawn and Marlon Williams, two brothers striving to realize their dreams while toiling away at their respective jobs. Boasting a cast that included John Witherspoon (John “Pops” Williams), Anna Maria Horsford (Deirdre “Dee” Baxter), Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) and other recurring characters, The Wayans Bros. gave The WB a credible sitcom to build its legs on, with Shawn and Marlon’s cache among young black viewers drawing eyes to the network.
Avid fans of rap music and products of hip-hop culture, the Wayans’ made sure to make their affinity for the five elements known from the jump, with their decision to use the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 single “Electric Relaxation” as the opening theme song and the graffiti-inspired logo for the show serving as two blatant indicators of this love affair. Sporting the trendiest brands of the time and infusing popular street slang into their dialogue, Shawn and Marlon presented an authentic, albeit humorous, glimpse of young black men that wore baggy jeans instead of slacks and were from the hood, but came from a two-parent home and were far from criminal-minded. Airing 13 episodes during its debut season, the breakout success of The Wayans Bros. resulted in the show being renewed for a second season, helping solidify the duo as viable comedic talents while establishing The WB as a force to be reckoned with.
On January 18, 1995, the week following the debut of The Wayans Bros. The WB aired the first episode of The Parent ‘Hood, a family-friendly sitcom in the mold of The Cosby Show. Created by and starring actor/director/comedian/writer Robert Townsend, The Parent ‘Hood centered around the growing pains of an upwardly mobile black family based in Harlem, New York. Townsend plays a college professor (Robert Peterson), a hands-on dad and strict disciplinarian, opposite Suzzanne Douglas (Geraldine “Jerri” Peterson), the family matriarch pursuing a law degree. Other cast members included Reagan Gomez-Preston (Zaria Peterson), Kenny Blank (Michael Peterson), Faizon Love (Wendell Wilcox), Curtis Williams (Nicholas Peterson), and Ashli Amari Adams (Cecilia “CeCe” Peterson). In addition to traditional sitcom tropes about family values and morals, The Parent ‘Hood also tackled serious issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, and gang violence, giving the show additional depth and garnering rave reviews from critics.
The Wayans Bros., The Parent ‘Hood, and Unhappily Ever After – another sitcom that debuted on The WB as part of its initial roll-out – all saw immediate success and were green-lit for second seasons. But Muscle, a short-lived parody sitcom that was also a part of The WB’s original Wednesday night lineup, was cancelled due to low ratings. Looking to fill the time slot, The WB picked up Sister, Sister, a fictional sitcom about reunited twin sisters who were separated at birth, that was cancelled by ABC the previous year. Starring Tia (Tia Andrea Landry) and Tamera (Tamera Ann Campbell) Mowry, with a supporting cast comprised of Jackée Harry (Lisa Landry Sims), Tim Reid (Raymond Earl “Ray” Campbell), and Marques Houston (Roger Evans), the show aired on The WB for its final four seasons, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network and catapulting the Mowry family to stardom. Around this time, The WB unveiled the First Time Out, the network’s answer to FOX’s Living Single and infiltration of the Latino market, which had a brief shelf life before being cancelled mid-season, but remains noteworthy within the Latin community.
As The WB continued to expand for the 1996-1997 television season, the network introduced additional programming with the debuts of The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Created by Winifred Hervey and directed by Stan Lathan, The Steve Harvey Show cast comedian Steve Harvey in a starring role as Steve Hightower, a former music legend-turned-music teacher who plays an active part in his students’ lives while balancing his own love life. Playing alongside Cedric the Entertainer (Cedric Jackie Robinson), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Principal Regina Grier-Maddox), Terri J. Vaughn (Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson), the late Merlin Santana (Romeo Santana), William Lee Scott (Stanley “Bullethead” Kuznocki) and others, Steve Harvey’s performance helped turn him into a household name on the national stage and remains one of the definitive roles of his career. Standout showings during his time as a cast member on In Living Color and in recurring appearances on the FOX sitcom Roc aside, Jamie Foxx was still building his reputation as a comedic actor when the first episode of The Jamie Foxx Show premiered on The WB on August 28, 1996. Starring as Jamie King, an aspiring musician from Texas who works in his aunt and uncle’s hotel, The Kings Tower, while pursuing his career, Foxx’s star rose rapidly during the show’s five-season run, as did that of castmates Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca “Fancy” Monroe), Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P. Hartnabrig), Ellia English (Aunt Helen King), and Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), all of whom scored various roles in television and film in the subsequent years.
In addition to sitcoms, The WB also introduced animated content for children via the Kids’ WB program block, which was introduced in September 1995. While largely comprised of popular Warner Bros. cartoons, Kids’ WB also featured original series like Freakazoid!, Earthworm Jim, and Waynehead, the latter of which would prove to be highly influential. Created by comedian Damon Wayans, Waynehead, which is based on Wayans’ own childhood, centers around Damien “Damey” Wayne, an inner-city kid with a club foot and a gang of friends. Featuring a voice cast including Orlando Brown (Damey Wayne), Tico Wells (Marvin), Jamil Walker Smith (Mo’ Money), T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Roz), Shawn Wayans (Toof), and Marlon Wayans (Blue), Waynehead would only run for 13 episodes prior to being cancelled, but is remembered for its plot and giving kids from the projects and inner-city characters and scenarios that reflected their reality and has become a cult classic with the passage of time.
As the latter half of the ’90s progressed, The WB became entrenched as one of the go-to hubs for black entertainment, with its slate of shows moving the needle and presenting viewers with stories and environments familiar to their own. Soon, after the initial run of shows, The WB would add additional shows with black leads to round out its programming block, picking up the NBC sitcom For Your Love, starring Holly Robinson Peete and James Lesure. However, when the network’s expansion into the teen market yielded huge returns in terms of ratings, hit shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell began to become the priority. This change, along with competing networks like UPN doubling down on The WB’s formula and cornering the urban market, would help result in the eventual demise of The WB’s flagship shows. The first show to bite the dust would be The Wayans Bros., which aired its final episode on May 20, 1999, after a five-season run. Just days later, on May 23, 1999, Sister, Sister would follow suit after four seasons on the network, with The Parent ‘Hood being the next to go just months later. The Jamie Foxx Show would last five seasons before bowing out at the top of 2001, while The Steve Harvey Show held on the longest, surviving until the following year after six seasons, making it the longest running show with a black lead in the network’s history.
Aside from the animated series Static Shock and the short-lived, Anthony Anderson-helmed sitcom All About the Andersons, The WB placed its focus squarely on teen dramas and sitcoms with Caucasian leads, with shows like Everwood, Felicity, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls all gaining traction. However, after the teen-boom of the late ’90s and early aughts faded out, ratings for The WB declined, prompting CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment to shut down the network in 2006 and jointly launch The CW later that same year. Officially shutting down on September 17, 2006, The WB’s most popular programs would be moved to The CW the next day, marking the end of an era. Outlasting fierce competitor UPN, which shut down two days prior and would also have select programs moved to The CW upon its launch, The WB remains near and dear to the hearts of multiple generations of black television viewers and produced some of the most beloved sitcoms of its time. As shows like The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show continue to live on via syndication, DVD, streaming services and YouTube clips a quarter century later, The WB’s legacy as a major conduit in helping bring black entertainment to the forefront is iron-clad.