The Unspoken Message of Black Media

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Media seems to be more influential than ever and growing beyond measure in the role that it plays in our lives. The scope of media today comes in many different mediums, each categorized by type and product. There is a seemingly endless variety to select from: film, television, music, magazine and newspapers, video and photography, radio, blogs and podcasts; and now the ever-increasing dominant distribution method of Social Media has crossed the threshold in to direct human access and action. Over the last 30 years, major advancements and breakthroughs are delivering polished high-definition media products faster and more accessibly than any previous generation, and it is worldwide, all the time.

Each form has developed different channels to broaden its range for the delivery of content, and its influence on the people. We have television series and movies that went from VHS to DVD to streaming “on-demand” services, within a single generation of viewers. Music videos also went from a single channel on cable to many, at first with culturally specific television stations drenched with music videos and entertainment news. Now labels, artists, and enthusiasts have video, audio, text, and pictorial feeds strictly dedicated to them, their taste, and whatever else they care to highlight. They are curators with Vimeo and YouTube as their show room.

Music-themed magazines, TV shows, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial radio, podcasts, on-demand streaming apps and social media have transformed the industry perhaps more radically than any other, including print media–young writers and musicians might be the most affected for their inability to be paid for their work. Whatever media we might be discussing, the great change they all face is being able to reach all over the country and world through the power of the internet. And one of the biggest fights is the one of ideas. Media has the inherent power to affect people, only at different temperatures, as the prophetic Marshall McLuhan might say.

The corporate world is obsessed with analytics, the endless pursuit of views, plays, likes, and subscribers, let alone the old fashioned Nielson Rating. The average African-American watches two hours of primetime T.V. and five more of daytime television on a daily basis. This demographic alone has the purchasing power of $1.1 Trillion.

Black media has evolved over the last half century. However, I can’t say that this evolution runs parallel to the technological advancements of media industries at large as far as quality of material and demonstrating cultural values are concerned. The work in fact seems to be getting worse. What are we spending so much time viewing? What are the messages being communicated to our children?

Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the black community enjoyed a range of positive television shows, leading some to consider it the golden era for that medium. The standard formula for programs like The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In the House, and Family Matters, was the depiction of black families with prominence–or at least working families living an honest life.

The Cosby Show was created by Ed Weinberger, Michael Lesson, and Bill Cosby. The show was based on an upper-middle class family in Brooklyn, New York. The show depicts an obstetrician, his attorney wife, and their obstinate children. They are often dealing with themes like civil rights, racial and gender discrimination within professional life and at school. It highlights African-American culture with guest appearances from artists like B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Jacob Lawrence, Miriam Makeba, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Now with Bill Cosby in the news for more than 30 allegations of rape, his former co-star in the show, Phylicia Rashad, has put herself on the record saying that the allegations are about “the obliteration of a legacy.” Mr. Cosby was enjoying a victory lap comedy tour, was celebrated by Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and others as the greatest living comedian, championed for his professionalism, his family values, civil rights, and a progressive view of the woman’s role within all that. Now he is an alleged criminal and serial rapist whose guilt has been determined by the media, not a court of law.

A Different World was a spin-off from The Cosby Show, created by Bill Cosby. The show’s original intent was to depict a white student’s experience at a black college, casting a white actress in the lead role. However, this changed and the story became about a black student portrayed by Lisa Bonet, who played Denise Huxtabul on The Cosby Show, and her white friend. At the predominantly black college, the show addresses the topic of race, equal rights and class relationships through the dynamic of the girls’ friendship and the other students. It also became one of the first American shows to talk about the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was created by Andy and Susan Borowitz. The main character, played by Will Smith, was involved in an altercation in his hometown of Philadelphia and then flown first class to Bel-Air, California to live with his Aunt and Uncle as a precaution of safety. This serves as the show’s starting grounds and from there, the audience watches as he struggles at first to adjust to the new town and the new family life, with it’s tidy and privileged environment, and its strange parameters and opportunities. We watch as he develops into a young man, learning and contributing in ways we are left to question whether or not would have been possible had he continued the life he was leading in Philadelphia.

The television series, In The House, was created by Winifred Hervey, an executive producer on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show was based on an ex-football star whose career was cut short due to a serious injury. He opens a sports clinic and rents out his home to a mother and her two children. The show depicts the importance of an education and a good backup plan for athletes. Some notable guest stars were Jerome Bettis, Kobe Bryant, Eddie George, Deion Sanders, Evander Holyfield, Ricky Watters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Junior Seau, and Derek Fisher.

Finally, there is Family Matters, created by William Bickley and Michael Warren. It is the story of a middle-class African American family in Chicago, Illinois. The father is a police officer played by Reginald Veljohnson. The family’s neighbor, Steve Urkel, a geeky genius, was another notable character whose legacy endures today, long after the show’s conclusion. The show depicts racial acts such as profiling and once again features parents as strong role models and citizens. These shows displayed the importance of education, hard-work, family, and showed African Americans in realistic, honest professions. Woman had strong roles, portrayed outspoken and intelligent wives and daughters; they didn’t have to get lucky and sleep their way to the top, as so often can be seen in contemporary television.

Today’s post-modern era of black television, the leading series are reality shows. In much of these, the success of the role models’ careers have been determined by status or luck; higher education and hard work is not as emphasized as it was in  Family Matters or The Cosby Show. These shows include the likes of Love & Hip Hop, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Basketball Wives. Love & Hip Hop was created by Mona Scott-Young and the show’s mission is to re-launch the careers of hip-hop artists, producers, models, and their significant others. Real Housewives of Atlanta, on the Bravo network,  intended to capitalize on the success of its predecessors, The Real Housewives of Orange County and The Real Housewives of New York City. 

Bravo stated that the series’ planned storyline focused on “[balancing] motherhood, demanding careers and a fast-paced social calendar.” Basketball Wives was created by Shaunie O’Neal and it show focuses on the lives of basketball players’ wives, ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, and ex-fiancées. These shows promote careers that don’t exactly require education: rapper, actor, dancer, model, football player, basketball player, or “stay at home wife”. Television’s influence is tremendously pervasive on a daily basis. I’d like to see it promote a wider range of values, the ones recalled by the shows of a bygone generation, such as higher education, commitment, and a good work ethic.

We all can’t be football players, basketball players, actors, dancers, rappers, singers, producers, agents, or their ex-wives. These careers do demand diligence and follow-through to be successful, but I’d like to see people achieving their goals on television based on merit and relying heavily on the attributes they’ve worked hard to develop and refine, not solely the ones endowed to them. In reality, people need back-up plans, skills or degrees, and this should be illustrated on television and media in general. We should be inspiring children and young adults to be lots of things, not just entertainers, and convey that these careers can be just as fulfilling, and that we have our own talents.

As it stands right now, black media doesn’t accurately reflect how the black community values art and education, and it exploits a few select people’s lives. Black media can do a better job of selecting the movies, shows, music, and videos they’re producing, covering, and promoting.




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