A black sitcom is a sitcom in American culture that features a primarily or entirely black cast or an African American in the lead role. Although sitcoms with primarily black characters had been present since the earliest days of network television (and indeed predate network television, as popular radio sitcoms included Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy), this genre rose to prominence in the 1990s.
The favorite programs of television audiences tend to reflect their different ethnic origins/affinities. The exposure of the black community on US TV has been greater than that of minorities but continues to reflect racial divisions within American society. (To date there has been a scarcity of Latinos and Asians on American TV and "Latino sitcoms" or "Asian sitcoms.")
Since US networks were criticized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for allegedly failing to portray the racial diversity of real world settings, drama shows such as The West Wing have cast more black characters. Black households make up over 20 percent of regular TV viewers.
Black sitcoms feature highly in the black audience's top 10 programs but have limited success with white audiences, attributed by Doug Alligood, senior vice-president at the advertising agency BBDO which has analyzed ratings figures, to the failure of humor to translate. The high ratings achieved by Bill Cosby have been ascribed to humor that has appealed to both whites and blacks.
In the early days of television, black actors were often cast in stereotypical roles, often as comic clowns in a tradition tracing back to the genre of black minstrelsy popular in the early 20th century. The first all-black television sitcom, Amos 'n Andy, was widely popular among diverse audiences and the show portrayed black businesspeople, judges, lawyers and policemen. After over 70-odd episodes had been broadcast, it was taken off the air after protests from specific groups including the NAACP, who alleged that the show engaged in stereotyping. Afterwards, there were no all-black sitcoms shown in the U.S. until the 1970s.
A series of popular black sitcoms appeared in the 1970s, including That's My Mama, Good Times, Sanford and Son, What's Happening?, and The Jeffersons. These sitcoms have been criticized as fostering an image of segregation and helping to perpetuate a belief that black and white cultures are so different that integration is undesirable and unworkable. In the 1980s sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Frank's Place, challenged stereotypical portrayals of blacks but were nevertheless seen as "black" (segregated) despite appearances by white actors.
After the 1980s, the major US television networks appeared to lose interest in black sitcoms, due in part to the success of series such as Seinfeld and Friends with a predominantly white cast. In the 1990s, newer networks such as Fox, The WB and UPN, anxious to establish themselves with a black audience, featured black sitcoms such as Martin and Living Single which drew high ratings among black households and were profitable even with a limited white viewership. Though there were some black sitcoms successful with white audiences in the 1990s such as Family Matters, Moesha and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the number of new programs continued to decline. From 1997 to 2001, the number of black sitcoms on US television declined from 15 to 6 as white viewership declined, and that decline has generally continued. Civil rights organizations have accused networks of denying minorities equal opportunity as well as a broader participation in general television programming.
By the early 2010s, black sitcoms had faded away on broadcast/network television (ABC, The CW, NBC, CBS, and FOX) but there are signs of a comeback on cable such as The Game, canceled in 2009 and then renewed on BET, A.N.T. Farm on Disney Channel, Are We There Yet? and Tyler Perry's For Better Or Worse on TBS, Love That Girl! on TV One, Let's Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines, on BET. Also, there have been a return of reruns of popular 1990s black sitcoms on BET, Centric, Bounce TV, TV Land, TV One and TBS.
On August 10, 2012, Tyler Perry's House of Payne surpassed The Jeffersons and became the longest-running sitcom with a predominantly African American cast in the history of American television in terms of number of episodes.
On August 23 & 24, 2012, Debbie Allen, the former chief creative force of A Different World from 1988 to 1993, wrote on Twitter that she wants to reboot A Different World. Over a million people on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs reacted to the tweet and approve the potential reboot.
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