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Still Room for More Black-ish Roles on TV

With the 2014-15 television season now in the books, a recent Ratings Intelligence report revealed that three of the top five highest-rated broadcast dramas of 2015 featured a predominately African-American cast or was headed by an African-American actor/actress: Empire, How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal.

With the success of those broadcast TV shows as well as cable series such as Power, Being Mary Jane and the Haves and Have Nots featuring predominately African-American cast or lead actors, it’s hard to believe there was a time when such images weren’t a major part of the television landscape.

Yet a recent Paley Center Tribute to African-American Achievements in Television reminded the many actors, writers and network executives in attendance how far African-Americans have come in portraying their stories and their images on the small screen.

Oprah Winfrey, who has been a mainstay on television for more than 30 years, spoke during the Paley Center tribute about a period in the early 1950s through late 1960s when there were no TV shows featuring an African-American actor or actresses in a starring or supporting role.

To have come from that point through the 1970s and 1980s when a few shows like Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons,Good Times and eventually The Cosby Show began to showcase African-American images and stories, to today’s array of programs showcasing African Americans across multiple platforms is not lost on the veteran actors and actresses who lived through those often lean times.

Antonio Fargas, best known for his role as the iconic, streetwise informant Huggy Bear on the 1970s crime drama Starsky & Hutch and who has been embraced by contemporary audiences through appearances on Everybody Hates Chris and most recently on Showtime’s House of Lies, recently told Multichannel News that he’s impressed with the strides African-Americans have made on TV.

   “For me I know whose shoulders I stand on. To now know that I’m a young pioneer in TV history because of the opportunities that I had in the 1970s is special," said Fargas, who is currently serving as brand ambassador for the vintage TV network Cozi Tv. "[Today’s performers] gave me opportunities in their shows because they wanted to say thank you for the shoulders that I gave them.” 

The other message heard loud and clear at the Paley Center tribute was that the beat must go on for African-American images on TV beyond Scandal, Empire and Black-ish.  

“It’s imperative that we keep telling our stories because our experiences are so broad, rich and multifaceted – there isn’t one way to be Black or ish,” said Winfrey. “The more stories we share the more reflective we can be of the whole diverse African-American community.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.