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Was UPN Black America’s Last Hope for a Black Sitcom-Friendly Broadcast Television Network?

Was UPN Black America’s Last Hope for a Black Sitcom-Friendly Broadcast Television Network?

Since ABC’s “Black-ish” debuted this fall, it has drawn numerous comparisons to “The Cosby Show” — and I have questions. I wonder why the majority of essays and critiques jumped to a show that has been off-air for 22 years. Although few television shows rivaled the mainstream popularity of Bill Cosby’s chef d’oeuvre, plenty of Black sitcoms have filled its gap since its 1992 finale. Does no one remember the quasi-Black glory of United Paramount Network (UPN)? And can there ever be another like it?

From 1995 to 2006 UPN was the home for over 10 concurrently running Black sitcoms (and a handful of dramas). Given the sheer volume of programming, that’s remarkable in and of itself. But perhaps what is more noteworthy than the number of shows is the range of Black life they displayed.

“All of Us,” produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, centered on a blended family of two divorced spouses and their significant others. The Essence Atkins and Rachel True-helmed “Half & Half” explored the relationship between two estranged half-sisters. “Moesha” was UPN’s most successful sitcom during its five-year run and introduced America to another beloved, nuclear Black family besides the Huxtables. Other notable UPN sitcoms included “One on One,” “The Parkers,” “Eve,” and “Malcolm & Eddie.”

UPN actively sought programming aimed for Black audiences at a time when Black mainstays from the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) were waning. “Family Matters” was cancelled from ABC’s coveted TGIF lineup in 1998. Fox declined to extend Martin Lawrence’s eponymously named sitcom the previous year. The major networks were beginning to narrow their viewership to exclude all-Black casting on their sitcoms. Not only were Black actors finding work on shows sold to UPN, but established Black producer-writers like Eunetta T. Boone and Ralph Farquhar found a home as well.

Despite—and maybe because of—its friendliness to Black programming, UPN suffered from a reputation as a sub-par network. The ratings for their sitcoms often scraped the bottom of the Nielsen barrel. UPN is remembered more for its utter failures (“Homeboys in Outer Space”) and ignored when we fondly recall the glory of “Girlfriends.”

“UPN took the rejects. UPN was ‘the Black channel,’” we joke.

UPN operated at a loss for much of its existence. But it is disingenuous to blame the decline of Black-cast programs solely on viewers. It was well-known that the company lacked the affiliate strength of major networks. An article in March 1999 issue of Vibe magazine lamented, “When a White sitcom flops, networks blame it on the writing or the time slot. But when a Black sitcom tanks, everyone assumes that Black shows simply don’t sell.”

Regardless, executives took the ideology to the bank and made a deal that would effectively eliminate the majority of Black programming on network television.

UPN merged with The WB in 2006 to create The CW Television Network, a channel that marketed to a much younger demographic of viewers than did either of its predecessors. I remember thinking cynically at the time: UPN’s Black sitcoms were in danger. The first year began with just “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Game” (in its debut season), “Girlfriends,” and “All of Us” surviving the merger. By 2008, the only sitcoms aimed at African-Americans on The CW were “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game”—sent to languish on the hated Friday slot. Today, there are no Black shows on The CW at all.

In the last eight years of network television programming since UPN’s demise, Black sitcoms (whether they center Black families or an ensemble cast) have been few and far between. The clamor over “Black-ish” makes sense in a landscape where White family-centered shows like “Parenthood,” “Modern Family,” “The Goldbergs,” and “The Middle” thrive on a buffet full of offerings. “Black-ish” is currently the only sitcom on a major television network featuring a Black family.

UPN may not have been perfect, but it gave Black audiences so much to choose from without feeling as if one show had to represent the totality of Blackness.

Accordingly, “Black-ish” has a lot riding on its success. Black audiences tune in hoping big wigs take notice and order more Black sitcoms. But it is telling that major networks began a “blackout” of successful Black cast shows in the late 90s and The CW essentially did the same a decade later. As much as Black viewers have shown their loyalty to programming (i.e. “The Game”) the false idea remains: Black shows don’t create revenue.

“Black-ish” could be the start of another heyday for Black sitcoms. We reach backward to “The Cosby Show” because we love it best and we always will. But in doing so, we ignore the stable of Black shows that kept us laughing long after The Huxtables faded to black. However, the success of “Black-ish” will remain singular until executives reexamine their beliefs about African-American audiences; we need them, like UPN once did, to give us a chance. I just hope it doesn’t take another decade.

Dara T. Mathis is an Atlanta-based writer, wife and mother. When she isn’t chasing her toddler, she writes on life, race, and culture at trulytafakari.com. She tweets for her life @dtafakari.

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