Broadly construed, Herman Gray’s article “The Transformation of the Television Industry and the Social Production of Blackness” questions the idea that the sudden proliferation of “black-oriented programming” in the mid/late 1980s was driven by the noble goals of culturally-savvy network executives; instead, he suggests that TV’s recognition and engagement with “blackness” evolved primarily from commercial media’s quest to generate profit by “identifying and packaging our dominant social and cultural moods” (68-69). As he constructs his argument, Gray is careful to declare that he’d like to focus on “political economic transformations and institutional conditions in the television industry” rather than use textual analysis alone (62). Hence, he highlights a shifting set of political, economic, and institutional conditions – such as the creation of multinational media conglomerates; the formation of the Fox Broadcasting Company in 1986; the popularity of videocassette recorders and video games as home entertainment alternatives to network programming; a relaxed regulatory environment under Reagan/Bush; etc. – that altogether contributed to an environment in which programming aimed at black audiences emerged as “a low risk, potentially profitable object of television” (63, 66). Gray is wise to extend his research beyond the parameters of textual analysis, because it results in an illuminating article, but I think he’d admit that textual analysis can still bolster his argument. In particular, I’d suggest that textual analysis may strengthen our understanding of his claim that highly visible media personalities “helped to focus, organize, and translate blackness into commodifiable representations and desires that could be packaged and marketed across the landscape of American popular culture” (68).
To that end, I’d like to briefly discuss two commercials that were released in 1993. The first is a McDonald’s ad that features Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing a game of HORSE for Jordan’s Big Mac:
Their shots become ever more elaborate and unrealistic, but the two players make everything. Because neither player misses, there’s not a true resolution to the competition; effectively, Bird (nicknamed “The Great White Hope” by some commentators) and Jordan (one of the most famous black athletes of all time) are signified as equals with no discernible difference between them. This probably isn’t the place to have a debate about which player was historically better (at jump-shots, or even trick-shots), but in 1993 Bird had just retired and Jordan was attempting to win his third consecutive MVP – indisputably, Jordan was the more transcendent player at that particular moment. Despite great stats, Jordan would actually lose the 1993 MVP award to Charles Barkley, who also starred in a famous commercial that year:
In terms of tone, Barkley’s Nike commercial starkly contrasts with the Jordan/Bird McDonald’s ad. It’s kinetic, pugnacious, and – with respect to Barkley’s disavowal of his “role model” persona – seemingly subversive. Barkley resists becoming a symbolic figure, a representative case. Looking at these commercials, the argument could be made [and I find this argument potentially flawed, but useful as a hypothetical] that, whereas Jordan buys into an idealized portrait of a “postracial” competition where race isn’t an organizing principle, Barkley confronts viewers in a way that disrupts their attempts to naturalize his identity according to dominant cultural norms.
To complicate this argument, Gray might posit that the commercials aren’t so divergent after all. In his article he suggests that, given political, organizational, and economic conditions at networks in the late 80s, networks responded with narrowcasting and niche marketing that were meant to exploit black images and representations as a means of generating profit (66). Insofar as the McDonald’s and Nike commercials circulate different signs of “blackness,” they would both remain – in Gray’s eyes – indicative of TV’s tendency to shape-shift and thus organize/articulate different audiences, desires, identifications, and meanings. As a cultural institution, TV is unnaturally good at harmonizing dissonance.