The words “niche programming” have been thrown around a fair amount in trade papers over the last few years, as the industry has tried to figure out just how the rise of cable and online television has affected what has come to be known as the Second Golden Age of Television. While undoubtedly many things have changed, Herman Gray’s chapter “The Transformation of the Television Industry and the Social Production of Blackness” indicates that the supposed increase in quality and diversity on television today has antecedents in black representation on TV in the 1980s. Gray’s production analysis of television networks in the 1980s complicates the current repeated narrative that niche programming leads to more diversity in representation on TV.
The factors that Gray states created black representation in the 1980s have analogs in our contemporary television landscape. Gray points to market forces (including the birth of cable and Fox) that drove networks to narrowcast in order to specifically target certain demographics for advertising (66). Shows like The Cosby Show, In Living Color, and A Different World were designed in part to appeal to the urban black viewer (61). (Though, as Christine Acham points out, networks didn’t want to alienate potential white viewers either, so blackness was not truly represented.) Today, the already complicated media landscape has further splintered thanks to online television. To quote Variety: “...the lesson of premium cable has been that quality can flourish once unfettered of the need to please everybody.” This has meant, paradoxically, that everybody can increasingly be found on TV. While the vast media landscape is still predominantly white, network shows like Jane the Virgin, Blackish, and Fresh Off The Boat tap new markets through diverse representation, while still trying to avoid alienating any potential white viewers.
It’s important to note, however, that this proliferation of people of color has not translated to cable and streaming programming. “Prestige” (read: mostly streaming/cable) shows, though more likely to show nudity, sexuality (including queerness), and adult content, overwhelmingly produce content about upper middle class white people. The Huffington Post found that between 2002 and 2014, 79 of 90 showrunners at HBO, FX, AMC, and Showtime were white men. Of the other 11 creators, 10 were white women. Only 1 was a person of color. This is reflected in the networks’ programming: Girls, Mad Men, and even Game of Thrones primarily tell white stories. This has two intertwined effects: First, “quality” is equated with subscriber television, so network television is rendered its inferior. Second, because subscriber television is mostly made by and for white people, “quality” is equated with whiteness, while people of color are relegated to “trash” network television.
The actual quality of these network shows is irrelevant. As Gray points out, these network shows commodify and exploit race (68). In doing so, networks sustain a false dichotomy of representation. HBO has attempted to respond to criticisms leveled against it by creating a diversity initiative. However, the vast majority of the market currently caters to the unspoken assumption that quality=cable/online=white and trash=network=POC.