Between next week’s return of Queen Sugar, next month’s return of Insecure, and whenever the next season of Atlanta decides to come out, it feels like we’re living in a relatively great time for black prestige television that allows creators the space for experimentation and authenticity.
Over at the New York Times, Salamishah Tillet discusses the “silver age” of black television (because while black TV is being taken more seriously than before, the status quo in television is still very white). The piece describes the journey the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) took to successfully find viewership as well as BET’s shift to the kinds of scripted shows their viewers were not getting from networks like ABC.
But as Tillet points out, all of this progress comes from an epiphany the TV industry apparently came to only just recently: black people watch television.
Tillet writes, “This creative awakening stems in large part from a bottom-line revelation: What was once considered only a niche market is now valued as an eager and highly engaged television audience.”
Hmmm. How many times are we gonna do this?
It seems like every other year, television wakes up to the fact that black people watch television, and/or that they might also watch television that reflects their lives. And by “it seems like every other year,” I mean, “no, actually, this happens every other year.” In 2015, Nielsen found that black people watch 1.2 times as much television than the national average. In 2013, they mentioned that black audiences watch 37% more television than the national average in their suggestion that brands should connect with black viewers and their $1 billion of purchasing power. Back in 2011, Nielsen found that black Americans watched two more hours of television per day than the national average.
This information has been out there and relevant for long enough to signal a much more impactful change when it comes to the representation and inclusion of people of color, particularly black people in Hollywood. There has always been a demand for better and more realistic portrayals of black people on television. But despite the audience, networks have remained reticent to unconditionally and unapologetically tell stories of black people, especially black women. As Ava DuVernay told Tillet:
“I think there’s been historically many artists who have tended to center black women in their work; the question is the compatible distributor, the compatible broadcaster who is also centering them and delivering that work,” she said. “Until OWN we didn’t have anything specifically for women of color. Not like we are only for women of color, but we can say ‘There’s something special here for you.’ The beautiful thing about cable is that we can say ‘We are for this.’”
This “silver age” of black television is certainly a symbol of progress. Not only are we getting black characters and stories on television, but many of these characters are given room to breathe and explore, unfettered by white expectations that are too easily satisfied with the mere repackaging of stereotypes rather than actual authenticity. And while Power is at Starz, Insecure is at HBO, and Atlanta is over at FX, it’s just time for the rest of cable television to catch up.