Friday, April 24, 2009

Viacom to Launch Cable Network Centric Targeting African-American Viewers

When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's there was always something strange about rarely seeing faces on TV that looked like mine, or hearing people who spoke like I did.

As a young African-American male growing up in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland there weren't a lot of characters on television that I could really identify with and in a way that's difficult to convey it enforced the sense of social isolation I often felt growing up in an area where the majority of people were white.

Don't get me wrong, I was and am a huge movie buff with a voracious appetite for classic film and all kinds of entertainment, but it really wasn't until the 80's when I began to see recurring black characters in a variety of TV shows. The 'Cosby Show' was the first time I ever saw characters of color that resembled my family and socio-economic upbringing.

For instance I certainly watched 'Good Times' and 'What's Happening' but the projects of Chicago were foreign to me and certainly none of the characters I saw on 'The Six Million Dollar' Man or 'Little House on the Prairie' or 'The Dukes of Hazzard' or 'Dallas' were African-American, but I watched the shows religiously.

There were exceptions. There was Issac from the 'Love Boat', Tootie from 'The Facts of Life' and Arnold and Willis from 'Different Strokes' or the original Lionel from 'The Jeffersons' - but well-rounded multi-dimensional black characters on TV were few and far between.

I was entertained by all kinds of characters (of all races, animated and otherwise) but it was hard to relate to many of them on a level that was personal to me as a kid. While I was a huge 'Star Wars' fan (I saw the film in the theater 11 times) George Lucas' stock soared in my eyes when Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, walked onto the platform to greet Han Solo in 'The Empire Strikes Back'.

That was a special moment for me, seeing a character I felt like I could be; one that was strong, intelligent and looked and spoke like me.

JJ Evans on 'Good Times' was entertaining, but even at a young age I never wanted to be or idolize a character that was so reminiscent of the shucking and jiving minstrel stereotype.

That's no knock against 'Good Times' creator Norman Lear, who changed the way Americans perceived race with 'All in the Family'.

Lear and the 'Good Times' writers also countered JJ's shucking and jiving comedy with the more well-rounded and multi-dimensional characters like his siblings Michael, Thelma, the mother Florida Evans and of course the father portrayed brilliantly by John Amos - who later left the show because of creative differences with the producers over the way his charter was portrayed on screen and how it visualized the black American male.

Network and cable television casting have come a long way and it's nice to read about the industry creating more programming options with an eye towards entertainment geared towards an ethnic audience.

Friday's Media Daily News reports that Viacom's (parent company of BET) is actively courting an older, professional (25-54) African-American demographic with a new cable network called Centric set to launch in the fall.

According to the article Centric would compete with TV One, a joint venture between Comcast and Radio One targeting the same demographic. A consumer demographic that spent more than $800 billion in 2006, numbers that advertisers can't afford to ignore.

Let's hope Centric contributes content that strives to portray African-Americans in a positive and healthy light that reflects the vast array of perspectives within the spectrum of an educated, intellectual, professional demographic.

One that votes, worships, thinks and plays in innumerable ways.

Mad TV Skit: No Black People on TV

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