24 December 2013

The Lost Demographic: What My Black Mom is Watching on TV

When I entered the kitchen this morning, my mom was watching a rerun of Family Matters ... I know. Family Matters y'all. While I look on shows like this it's with nostalgia and a bit of wistfulness to my mom this is regular television viewing. 

Now this part is for the TV execs, so listen up. I know my mom isn't part of your hallowed 18–49 demographic but somehow CBS is always number one despite the fact that is mainly watched by the 60+ set so maybe it's time to think outside of the box since my contemporaries are running away from traditional television. And when it comes to older women of color like my mother, you've really dropped the ball. If I grew up in the so-called "Golden era" of Black television when shows like Family Matters, Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ruled their airwaves, that was all my mother knew. She knew Good Times and Julia and Sanford and Son and that only got better as the 80s and 90s went on. The late 90s and early 2000s saw a dramatic shift in media representation of people of color and the loss of networks like UPN and the WB which focused largely on Black sitcoms. And my mom and older women of color like her, never went back. Outside of her "stories" or soap operas (which are also being phased out), my mother actively watches reruns of Black television shows. Recently, she's started watching Scandal, though it took me over a year to get her to watch an episode because she initially wrote it off as being another "white people show" despite the fact that it is produced by and stars a Black woman. And I don't blame her initial reaction. 

The truth is over the past 10-15 years, Black people have been relegated to the sidelines of television. We are the sidekicks, the best friends, the diversity hires. No wonder everyone gasps in astonishment when shows like The Game premiere on BET to record breaking numbers or when "race themed" movies like The Best Man Holiday top at the box office. Executives have forgotten how shows like The Cosby Show were once the cornerstone of network television but people like my mom haven't forgotten and they'd rather watch reruns than take in media that doesn't represent them. Recently, things have started to shift slowly back. We are seeing people of color heading up casts and their characters being treated like actual human beings rather than props for the white characters to emote around. But will we ever get back to a place where an all-Black family on television isn't seen as just a show for Black people? Will we get back to a place where my mother sees herself reflected on television and others can see the universal humanity in a Black family?