As we end the year, I’m calling it! 2016 is the year of the black television renaissance. This renaissance is due in part to having black creators in decision making positions!
Having watched black folks on TV forever and having studied it academically and personally my whole adult life, I can say that this year has seen a real paradigm shift with more black creators than ever creating not only sitcoms, as they have been relegated to in the past, but full blown dramas!
There have been attempts in the past to depict the “black drama” on television. Dramas that weren’t centered around a cop or detective, and dramas with predominately black casts. One example, “Under One Roof” is a series that aired on CBS in 1995. It was a family drama starring James Earl Jones, Joe Morton, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Essence Atkins. It was Executive Produced by African American filmmaker Thomas Carter (director of the films “Save the Last Dance” and “Coach Carter”). Only 6 episodes were produced as a midseason replacement and it was eventually cancelled.
The black drama was attempted again in 2000, this time by prolific television producer Steven Bochco. “City of Angels” was network television’s first medical drama with a predominantly African American cast and that also had African American filmmaker Kevin Hooks as an Executive Producer, with prolific African American television director Paris Barclay as Co-Producer and Director of many episodes. “Angels” ran for two seasons on CBS before being cancelled. The show starred Blair Underwood, Vivica A. Fox, Hill Harper and Gabrielle Union as doctors, and Maya Rudolph and Viola Davis as nurses.
There may have been more dramas featuring African Americans in prominent roles, like the “Empire” precursor, 2003’s “Platinum,” a record label drama created by John Ridley (Oscar winner for
“12 Years a Slave,” and creator of 2015’s critically-acclaimed ABC anthology drama series “American Crime”); those two series (“Empire” and Platinum”) especially come to mind, because both have black people in lead positions in front of AND behind the camera.
As you can see there HAVE been attempts in the past; so where did this idea of a new “renaissance” come from? I traced the origin of this shift to four years ago, to one show – “Scandal.” The Shonda Rhimes series, which debuted on the ABC on April 5, 2012, was a drama created by a black woman (Rhimes), starring a black woman (Kerry Washington) that also became a HIT, successively increasing its reach and appeal during its first 3 seasons.
Soon after “Scandal’s” big splash, other dramas by black creators started getting greenlit by TV networks – cable and broadcast.
Love him or hate him, Tyler Perry paved the way for original dramas on OWN. When his nighttime soap “The Haves and the Have Nots” premiered on OWN, on May 28, 2013, it pulled in 1.77 million viewers, OWN’s highest series premiere at that point.
Shortly after that on July 2, 2013, “Being Mary Jane,” created by Mara Brock Akil, premiered on BET as a 90-minute pilot, but didn’t debut as a series until the following year, in January 2014.
The next milestone in this budding new renaissance came in January 2015 when a little show called “Empire” debuted. Talk about making a splash; “Empire” premiered breaking records, including a 22 year old ratings record in the history of the network. In fact the show continued to break rating records for Fox TV, not only wiping out its competition on the other networks in its time slot, but it was also the first program in the history of Nielsen’s People Meters (going back to 1991) to grow in total viewers, with each of its four episodes following its premiere (see “The ‘Empire’ Ratings Juggernaut Continues on and on… and on“).
“Empire” was a phenomenon that couldn’t be denied. A show co-created by a black creator (Lee Daniels) featuring a predominately black cast, and more importantly a predominately black writing staff.
It’s important to note that lots of your favorite shows featuring black characters didn’t even feature black writers–not to a large extent; but these new shows have bucked that trend.
It’s also worth noting that the aforementioned “American Crime” by John Ridley debuted on ABC in March 5, 2015, but it was “Empire” that really stunned Hollywood.
This brings us to 2016, when the renaissance really begins; a rare year in which we saw shows with predominately black casts, black creators and black Executive Producers premiere to great excitement.
In February, “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” debuted. Even though this series was Executive Produced by Ryan Murphy and others, they also had African American Co-Executive Producer Anthony Hemingway, who directed half of the season’s 10 episodes. The show premiered with huge ratings, drawing 8.3 million viewers — the largest ever audience for an FX premiere (also see “‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ Ends “Epic” Run as Cable’s Most-Watched New Show of 2016“).
Hemingway had a busy year in 2016, as he was also Executive Producer and Director on “Underground,” the period drama series created by Misha Green (who is African American) and Joe Pokaski which was set against the backdrop of the story of the Underground Railroad in Antebellum Georgia. Like he did on “People vs OJ Simpson,” Hemingway also directed half of “Underground’s” 10 episodes during its first season (it was renewed for a second season to debut in 2017). “Underground” was also executive produced by Grammy winner John Legend and African American Producer Mike Jackson. “Underground” also premiered to breaking records (see “WGN’s ‘Underground’ Premiere Ratings Shatter Records (Diversity Is Good for Business)“).
By summer, cable channel OWN was back in the black drama business when new series “Greenleaf” debuted in June. Greenleaf was created by Craig Wright and is Executive Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Clement Virgo, a Black Canadian filmmaker. The series premiere drew 3.04 million viewers, making it the highest rated debut in OWN history.
The broadcast networks also pushed out product over the summer, although not always successfully; for example, the Will Packer produced series remake of “Uncle Buck,” starring Mike Epps and Nia Long, failed to win over audiences and was canceled after its only season. On the other hand, there was the “Roots” mini-series reboot which unfolded over four nights, kicking off on Memorial Day. It also had Packer’s thumbprint on it; he and LeVar Burton were among the executive producers, with episodes directed by Mario Van Peebles (and others). Also Questlove was Executive Music Producer for the production.
And while it wasn’t branded as a Baz Luhrmann series, Netflix’s musical drama “The Get Down” featured a diverse writing staff (some of them black) and consultants called on to ensure authenticity. The series’ reception was mixed, but it seems to have developed a cult-like following, with the second half of the season due in 2017.
When Fall 2016 came, it brought with it a big season for new and returning TV shows with black creators/showrunners. In early September, we saw, debuting on the same night nonetheless. “Queen Sugar” created by Ava DuVernay and “Atlanta” created by Donald Glover both premiered on September 6, 2016 and yielded great viewership results.
For cable channel OWN, “Queen Sugar” premiered to record ratings (9/6/16 and 9/7/16), delivering the highest-rated two-episode debut in network history, averaging a 1.9 W25-54 rating and 2.416 million total viewers over its two-night premiere. It also helped OWN score its highest rated and most-watched year in network history.
For cable channel FX, the premiere of “Atlanta” drew the best audience rating of any basic cable primetime scripted comedy in over three years in the key 18-49 demographic, with 3 million Total Viewers. The premiere telecast (Tuesday, September 6, 2016; 10PM-10:35PM) was basic cable’s most-watched scripted primetime comedy debut in Adults 18-49 (1.2 million) since April 2013.
At the end of September 2016 came the long awaited “Marvel’s Luke Cage” for Netflix. The show was produced under a deal with Marvel Studios and Netflix, but it had an African American showrunner in Cheo Hodari Coker. Netflix won’t confirm, because it doesn’t have to, but during the weekend the show debuted, Netflix’s servers crashed due to the volume and traffic. Given the show’s critical and social media buzz, it seemed on track for renewal and indeed it was renewed for a Season 2 just earlier this month.
In October 2016 came the Issa Rae-created HBO comedy series “Insecure,” which she also stars in. Even though it was available ahead of its premiere for over 2 weeks on various HBO online platforms, its broadcast debut still tallied a total of 1.1 million viewers for its first episode. That was higher than the premiere episode of Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Divorce,” also on HBO, which only had about 1 million total viewers for the weekend.
“Queen Sugar,” “Atlanta” and “Insecure” have also been renewed for second seasons.
Upcoming shows with black creators that are scheduled to premiere during the next half of the current TV season include “Shots Fired” from Gina Prince-Bythewood, and “Star,” the new music series from Lee Daniels (a special presentation of its pilot episode aired last week), both for the Fox network; also series like “Underground” and “Greenleaf” will be returning for their second seasons.
There are several shows with black creators that were announced this year, and will be coming further down the road, like the Black Lightning series, based on the DC Comics character. Husband-and-wife duo Salim and Mara Brock Akil are also executive producing, in addition to writing the television adaptation of the comic for the Fox network.
But Fox and OWN aren’t the only networks giving major play to black creators, as S&A recently pointed out, Larry Wilmore, Shonda Rhimes, John Ridley, Kenya Barris, Kerry Washington & Viola Davis now have development deals with ABC Studios.
Development deals DO NOT mean their projects will eventually get on the air, but it does mean that they are at least “in the room,” in contention, and in discussion with the people who can get them on the air. It’s like being drafted in sports. Just because you get drafted doesn’t mean you’ll be a star on the team, or that you’ll even play. There’s a lot of development that has to take place first.
Of course, I can’t forget about the contributions made by existing black TV networks who continue to evolve; TV One seems to have fully embraced the telepic, cranking out movies quite regularly all year, along with a handful of original scripted series; BET has “Being Mary Jane” as well as an upcoming New Edition event miniseries; both premiere early in 2017 (“Being Mary Jane” being a strong performer for them, returning for its 4th season); and the youngest of the networks, Bounce TV, which debuted its first original scripted drama series this year, “Saints & Sinners,” which was a ratings hit for them, becoming the network’s most-watched program in its 5 year history. Needless to say, it was renewed for a second season.
And there’s more to talk about, like Starz’s existing hit series “Power” and “Survivor’s Remorse” both renewed for new seasons premiering in the summer of 2017.
So while I’m calling 2016 “the year of the black TV renaissance”, it doesn’t have to end with 2016, and we hope it’s just the beginning. Several more projects – dramas, comedies, docuseries – by black creators have been announced and are in the pipeline; several black content creators have development deals with various TV studios. All more than even before. This at least suggests that Hollywood is open to new, fresh, diverse (specifically black) voices, and ideas, which we can say is a step in the right direction.
You can talk TV/Film with me anytime on Twitter @NotherBrother and if you think there are some shows I missed (shows with black creators and casts) please mention them in the comments.