On a recent Sunday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, an overflow crowd gathered hours after services to see a screening of TV Land's "The Soul Man," starring Cedric the Entertainer as a Las Vegas singer who uproots his family and moves to St. Louis after hearing a divine calling to become a pastor.
The well-dressed congregants gave a hero's welcome to Cedric, costar Niecy Nash and TV Land head Larry Jones. Their accomplishment? Putting on one of the few television shows that spotlights an African American family.
"We're excited about seeing role models for our community and for America," FAME Pastor John J. Hunter said. "It's very important for our youth to see the moral foundation of a family. 'The Soul Man' has to succeed so we can have more shows like this."
Despite the rally, Hunter's faith may be tested in the coming months. "The Soul Man" may not return — executives have yet to give a green light for a second season. And that uncertainty underscores a chronic complaint: More than two decades after "The Cosby Show" broke new ground in the pop-culture mainstream with its portrayal of a loving two-parent black family, shows featuring nuclear black families or families of color have all but vanished.
"The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that building a show around a black family would be a liability in terms of attracting a wider audience," said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. "The executives feel that the mainstream or larger groups just would not be interested in a black family."
In some ways, TV has gotten more diverse. A study released last week by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) concluded that the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on the five broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS and the CW — are at their highest levels ever, with 31 roles. However, the vast majority of those characters are white; only seven are black.
It's also true that depictions of family life in general have been on the decline for years in television. But those that remain, including the returning "Parenthood," "Up All Night," The Middle," "Last Man Standing" and "Raising Hope," typically revolve around white families. (One notable exception is ABC's "Modern Family," which includes a white and Latina couple.)
The only returning shows with ethnic families at the center are TBS' "Are We There Yet?" and Fox's animated "The Cleveland Show."
Of the new series among the major networks' lineups with a substantial family component, including NBC's "The New Normal" and "Revolution," ABC's "Malibu County" and Fox's "Ben and Kate," only one — NBC's "Guys With Kids," about three new fathers trying to hold on to their youth while confronting the responsibilities of parenthood — features a black family.
But that family, with parents played by Anthony Anderson and Tempestt Bledsoe, are only one-third of an ensemble dominated by white characters. In the pilot episode, the black family was given relatively short shrift, while the white couples had more developed story arcs.
Subsequent episodes of the series, which so far has drawn lackluster ratings, have given more focus on the black family. But the near-absence of black families in prime-time spotlights how race and cultural issues continue to shadow the TV arena, more than a decade after the four major networks were blasted by civil rights groups for fostering a "white landscape" in prime time.
The void continues even though African Americans rank as one of TV's most devoted audiences: A recent report by Nielsen revealed that the average African American viewer watches nearly seven hours of TV daily, more than any other single demographic.
Among the slate of new fall shows just launched by the major networks, there is only one African American lead in a new drama: Andre Braugher of ABC's thriller "Last Resort."
Last month's Emmy Awards didn't help burnish the industry's diversity credentials. The vast bulk of the show's audience, nominees and presenters were white. No black female performers were nominated in the major categories, and the three black actors nominated in marquee categories were shut out.
The trend among scripted programming runs counter to other areas of entertainment, such as film and music, where blacks and other minorities have a more prominent role. Despite
Will Smith and Denzel Washington's status as major box office draws, television executives have less confidence that a black lead will have crossover appeal to a mainstream audience, industry experts say. As a compromise, blacks are often integrated into a larger white cast where they are usually limited to a supporting role.
"There's a perception at the networks that shows that feature minority leads involve an element of risk in the marketplace," said Ron Taylor, a former diversity and programming executive at Fox. "And the networks are risk-adverse."
To be sure, the major networks, particularly NBC, which was once the home of "The Cosby Show," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and other black shows, have largely ceded the development of ethnic-oriented programming to smaller, niche cable networks such as
BET (Black Entertainment Television) and ABC Family. (For four seasons, the latter network aired "Lincoln Heights," a drama about a black police officer and his family living in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.)
Another factor is the lack of minority producers and creators in television — the vast majority of show creators are white, and they typically envision whites as their main character, insiders said.
"The pipeline of projects that involve black writers and producers is also exclusionary of people of color," said Hunt, who is working on a study with the Writers Guild of America, West that examines multicultural involvement in TV. "The numbers are worse than they were years ago."
Cedric the Entertainer, who created "The Soul Man" with Suzanne Martin ("Hot in Cleveland"), said that though industry executives still have interest in including minorities in shows dominated by whites, "TV by and large is not interested in African American culture. They always want us to fit in."
TV Land's Jones said his network is trying to step into the programming void in an effort to attract an underserved demographic.
"We wanted to create a show about a family you don't really see," he said. "That was one of our main priorities."
Still, TV Land's effect on the diversity landscape is relatively small. The network averages close to 800,000 viewers in prime time, and the first episodes of "The Soul Man" averaged about 1.1 million viewers. By contrast, even a struggling series like "30 Rock," which returned last week to the NBC lineup, drew 3.4 million viewers.
Occasionally, of course, a show featuring black families, such as "The Cosby Show" and "The Bernie Mac Show," emerges as a major hit. Tim Brooks, a television historian, said that if a show like "Soul Man" were to gain a huge following, viewers would likely see more of the same.
"That would be a very hard feat to pull off," he said. "But it's not impossible."