Is television forgetting the amount of Black talent in Hollywood?
Last Thursday, after watching yet another pearl-clutching episode of Scandal – whoa! – I turned to Tavis Smiley and really got my feelings hurt. On the couch was Warren Littlefield, NBC’s former President of Entertainment and author of the new book Top of the Rock: Inside The Rise and Fall of Must See TV. For the record, Littlefield sat at the helm of the network during the '90s, when the "Peacock" could do no wrong. I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia about that era of television, but as soon as Smiley held up a copy of the book, I got the chills.
How is it possible that a book focused on the glory days of NBC would feature only one person of color on its cover? While I mean no disrespect to Eriq LaSalle, who appears in an ER cast photo, I really couldn’t believe my eyes. After rewinding the show a few paces, I hit “pause” and realized that there were also images from Cheers and Friends and Will & Grace and Law & Order and Seinfeld and Frasier and Third Rock From the Sun and Mad About You. And that’s it. Again, how is that possible?
Littlefield made sure to mention how Bill Cosby “electrified” Thursday nights back in the day. He called The Cosby Show “universal” and said that the show’s premiere episode drew an audience of 35 million. That’s all great (and true!), but I couldn’t get past the fact that the Huxtables were not represented on the cover of his book. And what about A Different World? Full disclosure: I’ve not read the book, nor do I know what photos are featured inside or on the back cover, but really, The Cosby Show shouldn’t be on the back of any book about television, especially one about NBC. I just don’t get it.
Over the last few days, the networks have been presenting their fall 2012 lineups, and while there are sprinklings of color across the board, it just never feels like enough. Not for me, anyway. It’s been 20 years since The Cosby Show signed off, and I don’t understand how we’re at this place. From where I stand, our society continues to be more and more diverse, yet the images on the small screen so rarely reflect that. Not only is it unfair and unrealistic, it’s damaging and hurtful. And it’s really getting old. As Smiley noted toward the end of the show, “[We’ve] got a Black man sitting in the Oval Office and in some ways, it’s easier to be President of the United States, as a Black man, than it is to get a TV pilot greenlit in this town.” Ain’t that the truth.
Speaking of the Oval Office, tonight is the season finale of Scandal, which is certainly something to look forward to. Yes, I’m already bracing myself for the drama that Olivia Pope and her "gladiators" have in store, but I’m also quite thrilled (and happily surprised) to know that they’ve been renewed for a second season. Even with the great ratings (and all of the deafening buzz), I secretly kept my fingers crossed that the show would return in the fall. One can never be too sure. After all, nothing is promised, especially in the unpredictable land of network television.
Regina R. Robertson is the West Coast Editor for ESSENCE. Follow her on Twitter @reginarobertson.