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How Netflix could dominate the Black TV renaissance

Black TV has been a boon to networks in the past, only to be shunted aside for white audiences. Netflix could make Black storytelling “more than a moment”—if its data and algorithms stay out of the way.

How Netflix could dominate the Black TV renaissance
[Photo: scanrail/iStock; Astronomy Club, Dear White People: Lara Solanki/Netflix; Mudbound: Steve Dietl; Self Made: Amanda Matlovich/Netflix; When They See Us: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix; Da 5 Bloods: courtesy of Netflix]
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Last month, in response to the protests against police brutality and racial injustice, Netflix joined the ranks of other media companies spotlighting film and TV shows centered on the Black experience.

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Netflix’s curated landing page featured some of the best Black content that the platform has to offer, proclaiming “Black storytelling matters” and stating that this was “more than a moment.”

It’s a rallying sentiment, for sure, but content catering to Black audiences, particularly in TV, has a troublesome history of being just that: a moment.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, there was a pattern of major networks finding success with Black-centric programming only to pivot toward shows with white audiences in mind. It wasn’t until the dawn of Shonda Rhimes’s reign at ABC that Black leads (and showrunners) were given a mainstream pipeline once more. The runaway successes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Kenya Barris’s Black-ish no doubt helped grease the wheel for shows such as Atlanta, Insecure, Empire, and more, sparking what many have called the Black TV Renaissance.

But the question still lingers: Is it just a moment?

While it should be paramount for all networks and streamers to have more inclusive storytelling and storytellers at the helm, Netflix in particular is in a unique position not only to lead the charge, but possibly push Black TV to its next level. It has been praised for the variety and depth of its content starring and created by Black Americans (not to mention that it has international initiatives backing Black creators in Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere). It also has more Black executives with the ability to back a project.

Yet notice that Netflix doesn’t have a show in that hit parade above. It has yet to back the next Issa Rae or Donald Glover to build a star-making, genre-defining vehicle both in front of and behind the camera.

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Will Netflix seize this moment? It should . . . unless data and algorithms get in the way.

The boom and bust of Black TV

Black TV’s initial Renaissance started in earnest with The Cosby Show. Premiering in 1984, the family-friendly antics of the Huxtable clan became NBC’s crown jewel, nabbing the number-one spot in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons.

The Cosby Show cleared a path for the ’90s boom of Black sitcoms and sketch shows across NBC, ABC, and Fox, including Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Martin, In Living Color, Living Single, Roc, and more. Not only were these Black-led shows, but show creators and writers such as Martin Lawrence, Yvette Lee Bowser, and Keenen Ivory Wayans were in a position to tell their own stories about their own community and experiences—within mainstream programming blocks, no less. It was “authentic” content before it became a buzzword.

But for every boom, there’s a bust around the corner.

Toward the late ’90s, networks shifted their priorities. As The New York Times reported in 1998:

Prime-time television has rarely been as racially divided as it is today, in terms of both casts and audiences, a fact most strikingly true in network television’s dominant form of entertainment, comedy. Networks, under enormous pressure to maximize dwindling profits, have been focusing on the more numerous and generally more affluent white households that advertisers prefer.

For many shows, that meant cancellation or, in some cases, newer networks such as the UPN replicating the formula of building a Black audience with shows like Moesha, The Parkers, and Girlfriends before eventually targeting the white demographic when it combined with the WB to form The CW.

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As an ad exec put it to the NYT: ”It is definitely more difficult in prime time to bring whites to black shows than it is to bring blacks to white shows. A show doesn’t stand a chance once it’s labeled a black show. The fact is, fewer and fewer shows cross over each year.”

And then there was ShondaLand.

Black TV Renaissance 2.0

When Kerry Washington stepped into the role of Olivia Pope in Scandal back in 2012, it marked the first time in nearly 40 years that a Black woman led a network drama. Rhimes hit the intersectional jackpot again with Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder.

Suddenly, the mainstream cared about Black voices again. But old network habits truly die hard.

ABC rebranded its popular TGIF banner to TGIT focused entirely on Rhimes’s Thursday lineup of Grey’s AnatomyScandal, and How To Get Away With Murder. Marketers flocked to the upscale programming that not only pulled in massive ratings across the all-important 18-49 demo, but had a rabid social following to boot. On top of ShondaLand productions was ABC’s Asian-family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, which became a key component of the network’s Wednesday night comedy lineup.

Former president of ABC Entertainment Paul Lee told Adweek in 2015: “We are going through as much change as a nation demographically as we are technologically. And we felt very strongly that we wanted to reflect America. We’ve been through a period of political correctness where you don’t want to talk about the differences, but I would say, vive la difference! Let’s celebrate the culture that we live in.”

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And then Roseanne rolled into town.

Spurred by Donald Trump winning the 2016 election, ABC made the decision to appeal to more red-state audiences by rebooting its ratings magnet of yore, Roseanne.

Then president of ABC Entertainment Channing Dungey said they’d spent “a lot of time looking for diverse voices” but that ABC “had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”

Trump’s victory and the national mood it evoked certainly warranted some reflection in television. But Roseanne Barr’s highly problematic and racist off-camera interviews and social media posts drew immediate and immense backlash. ABC responded by killing off the character of Roseanne and rebranding the show as The Conners.

Aside from the Roseanne fiasco, there was also the controversy of ABC having shelved an episode of Black-ish that revolved around Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in response to police brutality.

In a 2017 interview with Fast Company, Rhimes said: “I’ve heard a lot of post-election talk that suggests that people think that we have left out a section of the country that is white and male. And the shows that have gotten picked up [by the networks] reflect that. To me, that feels like the most ridiculous scam that has ever been pulled on the networks. Ever. The idea that you believe that white men don’t have a voice is astounding to me. That’s what you got out of the election?”

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It’s little wonder why both Rhimes and Barris jumped ship to Netflix, with Dungey not far behind when she took the role of Netflix’s VP of original content in 2018.

Netflix’s blemished record on race

However, Netflix hasn’t necessarily been a bastion of wokeness either.

According to a recent NYT column, Black staffers at Netflix took it upon themselves in 2015 to explain how chief content officer Ted Sarandos was overlooking an opportunity to cater to an underserved audience on the platform:

They argued in the documents, which I obtained, that Netflix risked missing a boom defined by “Empire” at Fox and “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away With Murder” on ABC. At the time, the memo estimated, only about two million Black households were subscribing to Netflix—5 percent of its total subscribers. It said that Black households were a $1.4 billion revenue opportunity and that few of Netflix’s top 100 shows, popular across other groups, were resonating with Black audiences. The memo cited “the (lack of) depth in our Black content catalog,” and said Netflix was spending more money on programming for British people and anime fans than for Black Americans. […] And they raised the question of whether Netflix’s algorithms, in organizing content by race rather than genre, were failing consumers.

Netflix has since forged mega-deals with top Black showrunners such as Rhimes and Kenya Barris. Ava DuVernay practically deserves her own tab on the site at this point with the Academy Award-nominated doc 13th, the Emmy Award-winning series When They See Us, and her upcoming series with Kaepernick. Spike Lee dropped his latest joint Da 5 Bloods on the platform last month. Self Made served as a history lesson in the life and times of Black entrepreneurial pioneer Madam C.J. Walker. More indie voices, such as Justin Simien and Dee Ree, have raked in critical success with Dear White People and Mudbound, respectively. And earlier this year, Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny turned in a refreshingly regular Black family story not rooted in racial trauma with Uncorked.

No doubt, Netflix has built a formidable résumé of Black TV and film. So now would be the time, more than ever, for the platform to take its approach to showing the full scope of the Black experience to the next level.

But one has to wonder what Netflix’s fabled data thinks of that.

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The problem with algorithms

Last year, Sarandos assured an audience at Denver’s SeriesFest that “Picking content and working with the creative community is a very human function. […] I really think it’s 70, 80% art and 20, 30% science.”

Of course, any network would be wise to rely on some kind of metric to guide their programming decisions. That said, Netflix is in a unique position to push Black storytelling in a bold direction.

As a subscription-based service, Netflix isn’t beholden to the whims (and biases) of advertisers. At 182.8 million subscribers, Netflix’s reach is incomparable. Unlike competitors Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, Netflix’s less restrictive approach to the content and tone of its programming leaves the door wide open for something off-the-wall and fresh.

Something like The Astronomy Club.

Produced by Barris, The Astronomy Club featured the eponymous all-Black comedy troupe in a variety of inventive and sharp sketches. The show scored a 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and 85% from audiences. It had all the markings of being a signature show for Netflix specifically targeting Black audiences.

But, after just one season, Netflix pulled the plug.

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In an interview with IndieWire, cast member Monique Moses mentioned that viewership was an issue, but also that the show didn’t receive adequate support once it was on the platform:

She had to tell her friends and family to search the name of the show, and the rest of the cast had anecdotal evidence that it wasn’t being promoted in the Netflix algorithm.

“A Netflix original, an all-black comedy troupe with such an amazing producer like Kenya Barris behind it, I feel like that should’ve been promoted to a wider audience,” Moses said. “I think Netflix should look into what shows they’re promoting, and opening up that algorithm so more audiences are exposed to different kinds of shows.”

Fellow troupe member Jon Braylock backed up Moses and added how difficult in general it is to find footing in just one season: “I’m really proud of the first season, we have some great sketches in there. But with the first season of any show you’re learning as you go. We learned so much we could’ve applied to the next season, so it’s frustrating that we didn’t have the chance to do that.”

The notion that some content gets buried has been vehemently denied by Netflix’s VP of product Todd Yellin. As Vulture reported:

Yellin argues that critics underestimate the ability of Netflix’s fabled recommendation engine to put eyeballs in front of shows and movies. Rather than pushing every title to every member the day it premieres, Netflix targets content to customers based on their past viewing habits.

Netflix has stated that upward of 80% of watched content is based on algorithmic recommendations.

And it can’t be forgotten how those algorithmic recommendations led to a rather ham-fisted ploy for Black viewers. In 2018 Black Netflix users essentially accused the platform of catfishing them by swapping the thumbnail of a mostly white film or TV show with Black actors who often had minor roles. One could argue that instead of remixing thumbnails, there could just be more Black TV shows and films.

Netflix’s reliance on what you’ve already seen on the platform and other data may inhibit bigger swings that could help to elevate a broader swath of Black stories in places where it’s currently lacking such as animation or horror. Again, it’s not all on Netflix’s shoulders—but theirs are indeed the broadest and sturdiest to support and find an audience for more boundary-pushing content.

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Black TV helped shape some of the biggest networks that, eventually, treated those stories as a fad. The new era of the Black TV Renaissance seems to have a firmer place in today’s landscape, with new storytellers emerging and intersections and issues being handled with great nuance. Moreover, the current national conversation around race has fueled a more intent look at representation.

That wave could certainly take stories centered around the Black experience to new heights that are, indeed, “more than a moment”—and Netflix is the prime candidate for that amplification.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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