(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Every year the NAACP and several other large organizations that advocate for African-American rights and respect release a report with same bad news: There are no Black folks on television anymore. Oh the theme varies from time to time, there are no Blacks on primetime sitcoms, no Blacks on nighttime dramas, no Black head writers or producers but the story has been the same: For the last decade there seems to be a steady decrease in the number of African-American men and women in prominent visible spaces on nightly cable television. While this is a dire issue these reports often fail to address why the news stations are doing what they are doing, or more importantly why it should even matter to have Black talent on the air. Only once those arguments are made will we see any changes.
In a press release last Friday the NAACP expressed dismay that CNN’s new primetime line-up didn’t include any African-American men or women as anchors or even co-hosts of their nightly programs. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the same applies to MSNBC, Fox and the “Hopefully Keith Olbermann will make us relevant again” Current TV nightly line-ups. In fact there are no African-American hosts or anchors of any cable or network news show between 5 and 11 p.m. today (unless you want to county Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, but that’s sports and it’s HBO not TV!) I respect the NAACP pointing this out but how we got this point and where do we go from here is as important as pointing out the problem.
To be fair, primetime television has never had a surfeit of African-American anchors or hosts. Once you move past the Bryant Gumbles and Ed Bradleys there haven’t been many Black faces on cable spaces at any point in history. The reasons for this are the same old tropes you’ve heard about Blacks in Hollywood: White Audiences won’t watch Black people. Even though we know this to not be true, News outlets that are notoriously skittish about any kind of change whatsoever are not trying to rock the boat by adding any flavor or color to the nightly news no matter what. Which seems strange because at this point you have as more gay (Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow) and foreign (Fareed Zakaria is Indian American and Christiane Amanpour is part Iranian) anchors on television than African-American or even Latinos. I doubt there is an advertising executive in America who’d tell you that on the surface White Midwestern viewers are more comfortable taking news and cues from gays and foreigners than Blacks.
What makes this trend even stranger is that just three years ago the nighttime press seemed to be moving in another direction. The campaign of Barack Obama put more people of color on nightly television than ever. African-American consultants, academics, and commentators popped up every night to discuss the campaign and the early stages of the presidency and the likes of Roland Martin and D.L. Hugely were anchoring or hosting major programs. The problem is, oddly enough, the economy, which has affected every aspect of the United States and yes even our nightly cable and network news programs. As jobs have gotten more scarce and less secure networks have gone back to what is tried and comfortable, with no headaches whether it’s popular or not. This is why we have a network environment where Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are ratings winners but are let go due to controversy, but former Governor Eliot Spitzer is kept on three various transformations of the same failing program.
Unfortunately the only way to fix this problem is to remind the networks of what they already know but refuse to acknowledge: Black People Sell. Forget the moral arguments and just talk real numbers. When African-Americans see themselves on television we will become loyal viewers, that’s why the Real Housewives of Atlanta was a hit, and why Don Lemon is the hottest thing on television right now. You have a built in White audience and you bring in Blacks who are looking to see themselves reflected on television. With so many networks struggling you would think some producer would realize putting someone on the air besides Roland Martin to talk about Obama might bring an uptick in the numbers. Until then we’ll just have to rely on NAACP press releases but it’s become pretty clear at this point that no one is listening.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)