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No black dramas left on television

As Showtime's "Soul Food" says farewell, television is left without a single black drama.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The fifth and final season of television’s longest-running black drama, Showtime’s “Soul Food,” is serving up its last episode, leaving behind an uncertain future for the genre.

Based on the 1997 hit film of the same name, the multigenerational saga of one Chicago family has been one of Showtime’s most popular series, making stars out of Vanessa Williams (not the former Miss America), Nicole Ari Parker and others.

Fans held “Soul Food” viewing parties and the show’s official Web site amassed over 10,000 hits daily. But after the finale airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT, there will be no significant black dramas left on the air.

So why is “Soul Food” ending now?

Showtime decided it was best “to go out on top with high ratings and high-quality storytelling,” said series executive producer Tracey Edmonds, although increasing production costs might have been a factor.

Yet Edmonds said the story line will be left “open-ended enough” so that another network could revive the series if it wanted to.

“This show speaks to its audience on a personal level, especially in the African-American culture. That’s because we have African-Americans writing for these characters, African-Americans directing episodes, reflecting their true lives and lifestyles.”

While it never came close to being as big a cable deal as something like “The Sopranos,” the NAACP Image award-winning series marked a turning point, said Ron Simon, curator for the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

“’Soul Food’ represents the beginning steps of trying to answer the question: How do you deal with the new African-American reality on television?” he said. “It’s not dealing with stereotypes and the way (white people) think things are. It just shows the great potential of African-American drama on television.”

And for that, said Rochell Thomas, an associate editor at TV Guide, “Soul Food” deserves more credit from those who’ve dismissed it as a mere movie spin-off.

“The fact that it worked is what matters,” said Thomas, adding, “in general, dramas are having a hard time right now if they aren’t law or cop shows. It’s just that no one is willing to give a black drama a chance.”

She and others attribute this to an attitude among TV executives that black dramas don’t sell well in national syndication and overseas — markets where television shows typically make much of their profits.

Showtime President Robert Greenblatt, whose network is developing two new black dramas, said that argument is erroneous “until networks and studios have enough shows to really amass some real research on that.”

“To not access those characters and that culture in a dramatic form is just stupid,” he said.

Shows need crossover appealTodd Boyd, professor of USC’s School of Cinema and Television, questioned whether today’s benchmark of black success on television should be drama.

“Looking at the broad spectrum of television, there’s a different image you get, and in many cases black people have infiltrated spaces that are prominent and visible. It may not be dramas, but there is a certain visibility,” Boyd said.

But the reality of network television is that it is driven more by profits than social consciousness, so unless an “ethnic” show has crossover appeal to a wider audience, it will never achieve true hit status.

“Soul Food” did well enough for a pay-cable program, but it was never able to attract a significant white audience and therefore would not have been considered successful on a broadcast network.

“You have to appeal to blacks and whites in the audience,” said historian Tim Brooks, “and the black audience isn’t big enough if whites won’t watch, too. Whites certainly will watch black shows if they don’t feel excluded by it.”

“That may be part of it,” said director Paris Barclay, who was an executive producer on CBS’ defunct black serial, “City of Angles.” “But even if you have a show identified as a black show, just from the title, ’Soul Food,’ white people don’t want to sample it.”

Dee LaDuke, author of “Making Great Television,” agrees. She noted that white shows have become part of the “normal TV viewing experience” for black viewers, “but white people don’t themselves make (black shows) a first choice. Convincing the broadcast networks that these lives are as rich and sexy, tragic and funny as any that have succeeded on television ... is the next step for the reflection of race on television.”