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'Inside TV Land' explores the history of African Americans on television

Friday, February 01, 2002

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

The latest "Inside TV Land" specials, which explore the roles of African Americans in television, air during Black History Month, but they're just good TV history, period.

Loaded with interviews and clips from programs since the birth of the medium, these "Inside TV Land" programs frame the history of television through its depiction of African Americans in three genres: variety, drama and comedy.


"Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television"

When: 9 tonight on TV Land.


First up, the variety show (9 tonight), a genre that's pretty much dead today, but may see a ray of hope for a limited revival due to popular performer Wayne Brady, who just happens to be African American. His prime-time series, "The Wayne Brady Show," will morph into a syndicated daily series next fall.

"Inside TV Land" not only serves up the expected highlights -- "The Nat King Cole Show," "The Flip Wilson Show," "The Arsenio Hall Show" -- it also unearths the negative reaction of an advertiser to a 1968 Petula Clark special in which she put her hand on Harry Belafonte's arm, an interracial scandal at the time.

"Roots" aside, the hour devoted to drama (9 p.m. Feb. 15), aims to show "the golden age of black TV dramas is still to come," according to narrator Ron Glass ("Barney Miller").

Comedy (9 p.m. Feb. 22) is probably the most controversial genre when it comes to racial issues. In the early '50s, some black viewers were thrilled to simply see people who looked like them on TV, but others were upset with the buffoonery that was a mainstay in "Amos 'N Andy."

That same dichotomy has been repeated throughout the history of television, whether it was Jimmie Walker screaming "Dy-no-mite!" in the '70s or UPN's black servant in the Lincoln White House comedy "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," which is missing from TV Land's retrospective.

At a press conference for "Inside TV Land" last month, actors discussed the history of black people on TV and the pluses and minuses of "Amos 'N Andy" in particular.

"It's important that it is brought back," said Diahann Carroll. "We lived through a different time and blacks were very concerned that any image that was given to the television viewing audience be what we then considered positive. But the show was such a funny show."

Cicely Tyson said it's important for TV to present a range of portrayals, which would ease fears that any particular image will predominate.

"You have got to balance the scale," Tyson said. "We as a race of people have served not only this country well, but the entire world, and the world has to know that. You can only do that if you balance the scale and let people make their own choices."

The only disappointing aspect of these TV Land specials is that they sometimes fall into a "Behind the Music"-esque rut of showing the ups and downs and ending on an unwarranted upbeat note. This is particularly true when tonight's episode tries to put a smiley face on the future of variety shows. Whether or not Wayne Brady is successful, the genre simply doesn't work in a niche-rich environment where viewers can tune in to get specifically what they want.

"Inside TV Land" also fails to explore the myriad reasons why some shows fail. Context is key. "Frank's Place" wasn't canceled just because CBS didn't like the low ratings; the departure of co-creator and executive producer Hugh Wilson probably ensured it wouldn't get a second season.

Dramas "Under One Roof" and "City of Angels" failed due to low ratings, but were those low ratings tied to the racial composition of the casts or were they because the shows weren't that good, a reason viewers don't watch many shows?

"The networks have to give a show, a dramatic show with African Americans, a chance to find its audience and to promote it in a certain way," said Donald Bogle, author of "Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television." "The networks really have not been sticking with a number of shows long enough. And there is this idea now that such a show can't make it."

That argument can be made for many series, but in the case of "City of Angels," CBS would never have given a series with ratings as low as "Angels" a second season if not for the fact that it was a hot potato in the ongoing discussion about the lack of diversity in prime time. Then again, putting "Angels" in a lousy time slot in its second season provided executives with cover ("See, it got low ratings!") when they did finally cancel it.

"Inside TV Land" doesn't bring up or explore such gray areas, but overall these genre-specific specials provide a thorough historical overview.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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