By the time 1998 rolled around, black TV shows with black leads telling black stories were no longer as plentiful as they had been earlier in the decade.
The Cosby Show aired its last original episode in April 1992. A Different World reached that mark in July 1993 and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stopped in May 1996. The heyday of black appointment television had faded away. NBC tried to maintain the glory with In The House, starring LL Cool J, who, like Will Smith before him, was banking on an established musical fan base to carry over into his newfound acting career. But after two seasons, the series was canceled in 1996.
UPN, which was launched in 1995, was happy to try and pick up both the show and the mantle.
At the time, the relatively new network was attempting to mimic what Fox had done so well in the mid-1990s, when black audiences gathered round to watch Martin (final episode aired May 1, 1997), In Living Color (final episode aired May 19, 1994) Living Single (final episode aired Jan. 1, 1998) and New York Undercover (final episode aired Feb. 11, 1999), all of which featured black and multicultural casts, story lines and music.
“We nicknamed it, ‘You Pick a Negro Network.’ That was the nickname,” said Debbie Allen. She had directed episodes of A Different World, starred alongside LL Cool J in In The House and, quite frankly, is black Hollywood royalty. “They told us that they were just doing all kinds of black shows. I guess they were trying to follow Fox’s shoes. Fox had become a big TV network, starting black programming, and they were doing the same thing, but they were putting on some really pretty bad shows. And I remember one of my actors from A Different World got cast in the show. She said, ‘Ma, don’t you watch it, don’t you dare watch it! I’m telling you now, don’t you watch it!’ ”
LL Cool J was cast as Marion Hill, a broke ex-professional football player who was forced to rent out rooms in his mansion to newly divorced Jackie Warren (Allen) and her two children, played by Maia Campbell and Jeffery Wood. Eventually, Allen would leave the show and her energy was replaced by Alfonso Ribeiro, who co-starred as Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for its entire run.
“We nicknamed it, ‘You Pick a Negro Network.’ That was the nickname.” — Debbie Allen on UPN
“We had in the ’90s three different broadcast networks that followed this model where they got their early viewership by stocking their lineups with shows that appeal to black people. Fox did it particularly on Thursday nights with its Must See TV, with Living Single and In Living Color, New York Undercover, Martin and all those shows,” said Eric Deggans, a longtime TV critic. “Then UPN came along and started to do the same thing. … It was a programming strategy because black people, even now, will watch culturally authentic shows that star black people because even now, there’s still not a lot of those kinds of shows. But, back then, there really weren’t a lot of those kinds of shows.”
UPN boasted it had the most-watched shows in black households.
Some of the shows airing on UPN in the ’90s included Moesha (starring R&B princess Brandy Norwood); Malcolm & Eddie (starring former Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner and comedian Eddie Griffin); Homeboys in Outer Space (starring former A Different World star Darryl Bell and comedian Flex Alexander); and Sparks (starring former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dad James Avery, as well as Robin Givens, Terrence Howard, Miguel A. Núñez Jr. and comedian Kym Whitley). In the fall of 1998 came the ill-fated The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, which lasted less than a month because of criticism that it was making light of slavery during the Abraham Lincoln presidency.
But this period of peak blackness didn’t last long. One reason: ridiculous concepts like Homeboys in Outer Space. More significantly, the economics of TV encouraged networks to chase white audiences.
“If you offer a night, or if you offer a couple of nights of shows filled with black stars who don’t get much play in mainstream Hollywood and were stars of their own shows, then black people will show up and watch. You then have an automatic audience that you can build on,” said Deggans, currently the TV critic for NPR. “Unfortunately, the way that cycle used to work is that these networks would get their early audience with these shows and then slowly start to focus their broadcast networks away from black viewers. Because they wanted the greater [advertising dollars] that came from shows that appealed to white viewers.
“So Fox eventually sort of turned the corner and stopped featuring black shows. UPN initially did the same thing and then UPN and WB merged to become The CW, which also did the same thing. It was kind of an unfortunate cycle.”
By 2006, UPN had been shut down. The CW was trying to largely appeal to young white women. As a result, black sitcoms such as Girlfriends that were doing well in black households ultimately were canceled in 2008. Mara Brock Akil’s new series The Game (which was introduced in an episode of Girlfriends) about a rookie NFL player (Pooch Hall) and his medical school girlfriend (Tia Mowry) adjusting to their new life in San Diego, was the only new comedy series The CW picked for its prime-time lineup in 2006. It was canceled after three seasons. BET picked up the show after a successful period of airing reruns, and the season premiere in 2011 had a record-breaking 7.7 million viewers, which made it the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable television history at that time.
In The House, which debuted on UPN in August 1996, was canceled again in May 1998. A few weeks later, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz would battle it out for six games and Michael Jordan would win his sixth NBA championship and his sixth Finals MVP award.
It felt like the entire world was celebrating a dark-skinned black man — and watching him defy gravity on television night after night. Yet, what we saw on network television felt emptied of black folks.
No longer on the UPN show, Allen turned her attention back to basketball, a world with which she’s highly familiar. Allen is married to former NBA great Norm Nixon, a two-time All-Star who also won two championships with the Lakers.
Her household is firmly rooted in Laker Nation — “Are you kidding? I live with the Norman Nixon,” she joked — but the admiration for Jordan didn’t miss her family. Her son Norm “Thump” Nixon Jr. wanted to witness Jordan’s last regular-season game with the Bulls.
“It was pretty amazing. It was so exciting. Of course, they won. I don’t remember who they were playing against, [It was the New York Knicks.] but we were there and my brother-in-law [former NBC Sports sportscaster] Ahmad Rashad was commentating. He looked up and there was me and Thump. It was a big deal! Michael Jordan was always a big deal in our household and in the world of sports,” Allen said. “My husband had respect for him, great respect for him because he worked hard. Not unlike Kobe Bryant — he didn’t leave much on the floor. He would go for it. He always went for it.”