BROOKE GLADSTONE: African-American actors have had a long, distinguished, but frequently frustrating run on network television. Ethel Waters was one of the first to transcend the narrow character she was handed -- that of Beulah, the cheerful, self-sacrificing maid to a white family. The last half century has seen blacks on a fascinating journey from Beulah to the Fresh Prince of Belair and beyond, and it's all chronicled in a new book by Donald Bogle called Prime Time Blues. Mr. Bogle, welcome to On the Media. Set the scene in the 1950s for the portrayals of blacks on television.
MAN: Images of African-Americans in popular culture had started to change after the Second World War. We're seeing in America the rise of the civil rights movement, but television lags behind. The first series that really brings the black woman into man homes on, on the weekly prime time schedule was a series called Beulah, the Story of a Black Maid. You also had Amos 'N Andy during that period and Eddie Rochester Anderson -- he's on the TV show the Jack Benny Show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You often point out that the actors transcended their material -- certainly Ethel Waters as Beulah did that. And you suggest that Rochester was actually a departure from the servant - not just because he was smarter but because he didn't sacrifice himself!
MAN: You know they really tailored the scenes [LAUGHS] for Rochester; it's funny when you see him get the better of Jack Benny.
MAN: Wonder what's wrong with him? He's kept himself locked in the den all day. The last time he brooded like this was when his girlfriend, Blaire Sabisco, broke the engagement! [LAUGHTER] Then she sent back the ring and he was happy again! [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's move now to the '60s. I Spy is our introduction to Bill Cosby who becomes a fixture marking the passage of--
MAN: Yes, he does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- black images throughout the rest of the history of television!
MAN:Yes. It's interesting. Sheldon Leonard who produced I Spy - he had seen Cosby on TV and decided he wanted to do this thing with a white character and a black character who become buddies. You know for television at that time this was certainly something new.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also in the '60s you had Diahann Carroll starring as Julia, a nurse, a single parent; and she got criticized in the era for, for doing that role!
MAN: She ended up being criticized. I mean on the one hand it was a progressive image - that we do have an educated African-American woman -her husband killed in Vietnam. She's got a young son to raise. They go to Los Angeles. She lived in an integrated apartment building; her son's best friend is a little white kid. But here it is 1968 - she's in Los Angeles -her experience there doesn't seem at all to have been touched by Watts - but nonetheless the criticism of Julia really indicates that the black audience -- starved for images --sometimes will want one show to answer all its needs, and it can't do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Addressing some of the issues of - of black anger in the period was Link -- one of the trio that formed the Mod Squad as they said -the white, the black and the blonde [LAUGHS] -and of course Link was the angry black man wi-- who seethed inwardly pretty much throughout the whole series, and yet they were still doing the cops' work!
MAN: Exactly. Link had experienced Watts, and Clarence Williams III was just a great presence. He had that big afro and he had that sort of surly look, but basically the Mod Squad are cops, you know, at a time when there were campus takeovers and disorders in the streets of America in urban areas. The Mod Squad basically they're not there to tear down the system; they are basically going to support it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's leap ahead now to the 70s. Something very curious happened in the 70s. There were 3 black shows in the top 10. There was Sanford and Son - Jeffersons and Good Times.
BOB GARFIELD:Yep. Audiences wanted black shows with more of an ethnic flavor and black shows that somehow - even though these shows were sit-coms - were going to comment on racial issues in America.
MAN: Where you been so long?!
MAN: Fighting crime in the streets, Mr. Sanford. [LAUGHTER] We are going to get it to the point where people can walk anywhere in Los Angeles.
MAN: Yeah, but they'll still be running in Watts. [LAUGHTER]
MAN: The difference between Sanford and Son and something like Amos 'N Andy - Amos 'N Andy -sometimes white characters showed up, but never was the theme of race or racism going to be there. Never. And it was almost for the black characters in Amos 'N Andy as if race didn't exist. But it does exist in Sanford and Son and that - you know - that was significant! You know my-- real complaint though about that period - we have those 3 shows - you know - in the top of the ratings but-- television still prefers to give us a black cast in a sit-com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now let's leap ahead to the 80s. Let us begin with the show that people never stopped talking about - the blockbuster hit, Cosby! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: The Cosby Show - yes the Cosby Show. [COSBY SHOW MUSIC] You look at the basic situations on the Cosby Show, the family endures or experiences the same things that any other kind of family in America does, and that's what kept the mainstream audience watching. But at the same time, Cosby always had these cultural points of identification for his black viewers. He never lost his black following.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's worth noting that this is a program where blacks were in charge of their material!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the 80s you also have dramas that feature black characters and not as goofoffs - in Hill Street Blues and in St. Elsewhere!
MAN:Yes, you do. But the interesting thing is that these are still really not black dramas. These are workplace dramas much like ER and The Practice are today, and we do have important black characters and some issues are dealt with in those, in those shows. But you look at St. Elsewhere you don't really see nearly enough of [LAUGHS] Denzel Washington!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:With the '90s you have the creation of new networks like Fox and the WB and, and UPN and you have the rise of a, of a whole host of new programs, some of which reach a mass audience like the Fresh Prince of Belair and some of which don't!
MAN: It's interesting when we look at what happened to television - you know - as the '90s went along - I mean the networks ultimately abandoned black, black programming or the black series, and then these new networks, Fox, WB, UPN - they've really built their foundations on, on black programming. You got to a point by the late '90s where black America and white America were viewing different things. Black households, black viewers still want to see some kind of representation about them in their community. But you're only getting it still in these sit-coms, and the sit-coms are really more for younger viewers. If you're African-American and you do want to see more serious representations, then you have to go to a show like ER which is not a black show but has a leading black character or you go to the Practice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you can't find it on the networks, can you find it on cable?
MAN:Well I think that - you know it's interesting - HBO you know it's aware it's got a black constituency and it tries to meet the needs of that. They've done things like A Lesson Before Dying with Don Cheadle and Cicely Tyson; Walter Mosely's always outnumbered! Now Showtime is doing Soul Food - a series! I mean there have been some extraordinary talents! We have been able to get that from TV. We just want television to give us fewer distortions and more realistic depictions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you conclude in your book that it wouldn't just be better for blacks; it would be better for television.