What is a Black TV Show?
A question like this is often hard to answer. For example, the notorious answer to what is pornography was “I know it when I see it” by Justice Potter in 1994, and that has gone down in infamy for it being both absurd and absolutely correct. But we’ll attempt to do a little better here and actually define what characterizes a Black TV show.
A Black TV show is a series that not only features a Black character, but also reflects the many stories and experiences of African Americans. There is a long and sorted history behind what exactly a Black TV show is. The first TV show to feature a Black cast was in 1951 and titled “The Amos ‘n Andy Show”, which featured Black actors, but it was largely intent on characterizing Black people as inferior, lazy and dishonest. It was formally protested by the NAACP throughout its entire existence, and it was eventually canceled largely because of that pressure campaign.
Is a show that featured a Black cast, about Black people, and set in Black neighborhoods automatically a Black TV show? Well, “The Amos ‘n Andy Show” has all of those elements, but it was not a Black TV show. So how do we adjudicate that distinction? Is the fact that it was produced by white people alone enough to remove similar shows from consideration?
We’ll answer these questions, and more, in our:
10-Point System for Determining What a Black TV Show Is
With our 10-Point Black TV Show System, you can add up a certain number of points for each criteria and land somewhere on a scale of 0 to 20. Here is the criteria:
Criteria #1: Does the show have a Black Lead? (4 Points)
This is almost a no-brainer. A Black TV show almost certainly has to have a Black person as its one true lead. If you think about the greatest Black TV shows of all-time, whether it be “The Cosby Show”, “The Jeffersons” or “227”, they all had leading characters that were Black. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. It’s debatable as to whether the lead of “The Wire” is actually one of the Black characters, but nevertheless, most (Black) people would consider that a Black show.
On the other hand, I’ve also made the argument that “This Is Us” is a Black TV show (albeit, the whitest Black TV show ever), and as a result of its ensemble cast, there is no one true “lead”.
Criteria #2: Is the creator of the show Black? (3 Points)
We put an above-average emphasis on this criteria, because it really does make a difference in terms of whether a show is going to be adopted by the Black people it’s intended to serve. The aforementioned “Amos ‘n Andy” was not created by a Black person, and it subsequently wasn’t welcomed by Black people. However, “The Wire”, created by a former, white cop, was well-received by the Black constituency, so it’s not an entirely determining factor, but it is a big one. That being said, we know us better than anyone, so while a show like “The Wire” managed to get our attention without a Black person at the helm, it certainly doesn’t rank high on the list of the greatest Black TV shows ever. Shows created by non-Black people, like “The Wire”, or more recently, “All-American”, may do a good job of storytelling around the Black experience, but they are often flawed for missing many of the nuances that are hard to come by unless they were personally lived or witnessed.
Criteria #3: Does the show accurately reflect elements of American Black culture? (3 Points)
This is another major factor, and I’m hard pressed not to make this criteria worth even more. At the end of the day, if the characters and experiences being lived out on screen aren’t particular to the experiences of everyday Black people, it’s not going to resonate with the intended audience. Whether it’s the soulful Sunday dinners in “Soul Food”, the wedding-induced Electric Slide in “The Best Man”, the take-no-lip mothering of Monique in “The Parkers”, or the electricity-saving-penny-pinching of Terry Crews in “Everybody Hates Chris”, these traditions and characters (and admittedly, stereotypes) are what we grew up with as Black kids. They make us who we are, and so for us to truly feel at one with a show, those elements of Black culture need to be in our Black TV shows and movies.
Criteria #4: Is the majority of the recurring cast Black? (2 Points)
Is it possible to have a Black TV show that, perhaps, has a Black lead but is surrounded by White characters? Yes. As I mentioned, “This Is Us” probably manages to (barely) fall into that category. However, this is certainly the exception to the rule, as it’s going to be hard to have a show that is inclusive of our culture and only have White people on the screen. Very few shows have managed to do this, and those are largely relatively old shows, like “Different Strokes” and “Benson”, and they’re not usually regarded as some of the best Black TV shows ever.
Criteria #5: Is race a factor in the show? (2 Points)
Some people, including Black people, won’t agree with this, but I think it’s extremely important for a Black TV show to address the issue of race. That’s not to say every episode has to be about the injustices against Black people, nor does it have to “make everything about slavery” like Kenya Barris did in “#BlackAF”. But at some point in the series, a conversation or illustration of the racialized society we live in must be addressed. Please note, I did not talk about race in criteria #3 (black culture), because while I do believe the cornerstones of Black TV shows are American Black TV shows, a racialized society is not specific to America. Even in African nations where it’s not always about white vs. Black, the fact that you are Black can play a part in your life no matter where you live. So it’s hard for a show that goes on for 3 to 5 seasons not to address the very thing that is a huge determinant of the opportunities and pathways its characters take on.
Criteria #6: Is the lead character a protagonist? (2 Points)
It’s not just enough for the lead character to be Black, but he or she also needs to be a protagonist–or at the very least, someone we’re rooting for. That doesn’t mean they have to be a “good guy”. Ghost from “Power” was by no means a good guy, but we were at least rooting for him to win. On the flip side, if the lead character is a complete asshole with little to no redeeming qualities, this is a knock against it as a Black TV show, as the resulting conclusion is that such a purely antagonistic character is not someone to look up to or root for and I just don’t think Black people can get behind that in a way that they accept such a piece of content as belonging to our culture. For example, in the movie realm, in “Training Day”, Denzel Washington is a crooked cop that is all about that life, while his cop buddy, a white man, saves the day and is part of the reason Denzel’s character ends up shot and killed in the streets. That storyline, if done in television form, does not a Black TV show make. Oddly enough, it is what netted Denzel an Oscar.
Criteria #7: Are there Black family dynamics at play? (1 Points)
This might seem over-prescriptive, but if you think about the best Black TV shows in history, almost all of them have a strong element of family at the core of the show. Of course, you could say that about many shows, but I believe it is particularly correlative with Black TV shows, especially when you look at it from a historical perspective. You can go back to the 70’s with “Sanford and Son”, the 80’s with “The Cosby Show”, the 90’s with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, or even the 2000’s with “The Bernie Mac Show”. Now, some may counter with a show like “Chappelle’s Show”, or “In Living Color”, and of course, those were variety shows that would’ve been hard to have anything at their core besides being funny. There are better examples, as with “Girlfriends”, “The Steve Harvey Show”, or one could even argue “Insecure”. Still, while the Black family might not have been a core tenant of those examples, all three at least had the Black family as a part of the backstory in explaining their characters. I chalk that up to the fact that as Black people, we’re statistically born into situations where we shouldn’t amount to anything, and it’s usually one’s own family that ends up being the difference between success and succumbing to the statistics. It’s for that reason why family is often a relatively larger part of the stories we tell.
Criteria #8: Does the show highlight elements of Black struggle? (1 Points)
Some people won’t agree with me on this one either, but struggle is a part of the Black experience. I know you all have heard this saying one too many times, but I’ll utter it once more, “Black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much as white people”. For an entire culture of people to know and live by such a motto, it can only be because they, by and large, had to fight tooth and nail to get to whatever modicum of a successful life they have achieved. It doesn’t always mean it’s a financial or even mental fight. It could simply be the result of overcoming the fatigue and abuse many Black people have to endure just for waking up and going out into society with a dual consciousness. To not include this in a show featuring Black characters is almost certain to leave your characters’ narratives incomplete and tokenized.
Criteria #9: Does the show highlight elements of Black joy? (1 Point)
On the other hand, if you show Black trauma, you have to show Black joy. Heck, everything in life is relative, and if we as a people have to endure some of the lowest of the lows, well, we don’t have to look too far up to see a silver lining. It’s why Black joy can come from simple things in our Black TV shows. Whether it’s Whitney Gilbert telling Dwyane Wayne she’s pregnant in “A Different World”, Jamie and Fancy’s wedding vows in “The Jamie Foxx Show”, and the amazing musical performance of Rudy Huxtable in “The Cosby Show”. It’s some of these smaller moments, usually departures from the main storyline, that resonate with Black audiences most, as they help us leave the show feeling a little bit better about ourselves and appreciating the similarly small moments in our own lives.
Criteria #10: Is the owner of the IP of the show Black? (1 Point)
Last but not least is the question of who owns the content. We have to make this worth the least amount of points, because if it were too significant of a factor, we wouldn’t have any Black TV shows. The fact of the matter is that we don’t really get to own our TV shows. Granted, that’s not really a Black thing–most white people in media don’t get to own their shows either. Of course, the difference there is that while both a white and black creator of a show may not own the show they manifested, the company that does own the show is likely managed by white leaders, who then become the determining factors in a show’s ability to succeed during and after its initial airing. For example, it really wasn’t until 2021, 2020 at best, that we started to see the bulk of the best Black TV shows actually available on TV. Did you know that as late as 2019, you couldn’t have subscribed to a streaming service that would let you watch all seasons of “The Fresh Prince”, “Martin”, “Family Matters” or “Sister Sister”…?
Yet, if you wanted to watch all 144 episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at that time, you easily could have.
Of course, things have changed, largely due to the fact that streamers got into a huge “war” and every piece of content in your studio’s library became something you could boast about to Wall Street. The truth is though that by not owning our own shows, we didn’t get to spread our culture, our thoughts, and our learned experiences to the world in the most efficient manner for a very significant period of time. We shouldn’t allow that to happen anymore, which is why I think having ownership and control in Black TV shows has to be a key component of the shows we love, adopt and evangelize. Thankfully, Tyler Perry is doing his best to make sure his shows and stories are available on as many platforms as possible.
BlackOakTV is also making that possible. As a black-owned media company, the content in our library is undoubtedly being managed by Black leadership. And in the cases where we are a part of the creation of a new show and we don’t control it, it’s almost certainly because we ceded that control to the Black creator who made it.
So What Does All of This Criteria Add Up To?
We’ve now laid out that a Black TV show is one that features us, addresses our culture and race, talks about our families and our redeeming qualities, and reminds us of our struggle no less than it reminds us of our joy. With our point season, we believe we can categorize shows in this fashion:
- Fewer than 10 points: Not a Black TV Show
- 10 to 12 points: Borderline Black TV Show
- 13 to 15 points: Standard Black TV Show
- 16 to 18 points: A Uniquely Black TV Show
- 19 to 20 points: Blackest Shows of All-Time
Some shows that score high according to our criteria include “The Cosby Show” (18), “Martin” (19), “Sanford and Son” (16), and “The Bernie Mac Show” (19). Shows on the lower end would include “The Wire” (13), and “Amos and Andy” (6). I should reiterate, this point system is not a judge of how good the show was, just how Black it was!
We’ll dive more deeply into evaluations of Black TV shows in a post soon to come, and we’ll make it a point to unveil “The Blackest TV Shows of All-Time”.