When I think back to growing up in 1990s Los Angeles, a handful of impressions remain sharper than others–the killing of Latasha Harlins, the ’92 rebellion (what the media referred to as “riots”), the ’94 earthquake, the O. J. Simpson trial–but often, when I reach back, it’s the cultural touchstones I land on first. Of those, none remains quite so vivid as in 1996, the year after the upstart United Paramount Network launched. UPN couldn’t match the budget of broadcast rivals like NBC, but it was the only one of the Big Five that devoted a considerable slate of programming to investigating black lives. Even more important, somehow it found an unprecedented breadth in its focus.
It was a postboom era for black TV–by now pioneering comedies like Good Times and The Cosby Show seemed like relics of a more conventional time–and over the course of 11 years, UPN’s show creators and staff writers rendered black Americans in full, vibrant strokes. These were not tales of the exceptional but of the mundane. On sitcoms like –Moesha and The Hughleys, the rigors of teenhood and family life were made plain in episodes dealing with financial security and substance abuse. Malcolm & Eddie, which followed two friends in Kansas City, introduced the peaks and valleys of black entrepreneurship. With The Parkers and Girlfriends, the image of the Black Woman morphed and expanded before viewers’ eyes–she was loving, she was witty, she was vulnerable, she was free. These shows were disruptive by virtue of their very perspective: Blackness was the default, not the subject matter. These were people I knew.
And UPN wasn’t totally alone. Major networks like NBC, ABC, and FOX featured an array of shows devoted to working-class angst (Roc), brotherhood (New York Undercover), and social integration (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Steve Harvey Show). Still, UPN seemed like an outlier among a patch of networks more concerned with safer and whiter narratives. And in spite of show ratings, which were never anything to brag about, the message was palpable: These stories–our stories–mattered.
It’s been two decades since UPN first aired those sitcoms, and the landscape of television has changed in large measure thanks to the introduction of online streaming hubs like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. The sweep of shows across legacy networks, scrappy cable channels, and streaming services is as robust as it’s been in decades. There’s Jane the Virgin, the CW’s modern revamp of the telenovela format for American audiences; The Carmichael Show, a wonderfully quarrelsome family comedy; John Ridley’s potent serial drama American Crime. Outside of the traditional networks, Amazon’s Transparent tackles trans identity and ageism with compassion and quirkiness; Netflix boasts Orange Is the New Black and Narcos. On Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, there’s the megachurch drama Greenleaf, with Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar set to arrive this month. All of these shows, in varying ways, tap into the rich and complicated palette of daily life. Even Issa Rae, who was able to broker her hit web series, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, into a TV deal, created and stars in Insecure, a show premiering on HBO later this fall.
Yet for all the inclusion the streaming revolution has cultivated–across gender, race, sexual orientation, and religion–roadblocks persist, both in front of the camera and behind it. According to a March 2016 report from the Writers Guild of America, West, minorities account for 13 percent of television writers and “remained under-represented by a factor of nearly three to one.” Even worse: Among scripted TV creators on broadcast networks, minorities are underrepresented 11 to one. The realities are that much more troubling when you consider the TV-watching growth in households of color: According to a Nielsen poll, African Americans and Asian Americans have both become a larger share of the viewing audience–and one in five viewers overall are now Hispanic.
This increased viewership among people of color arrives at a moment when companies are offering money and opportu-nity in unprecedented amounts. Out of this cornucopia, online streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix–which will shell out $5 billion on programming in 2016, more than double what HBO is said to spend–have emerged as the new gatekeepers, holding the keys to a more idyllic television topography. It’s time to ask ourselves what new stories should be told and how creators will go about telling them.
Progress isn’t solely a matter of narrowing the color gap on TV but of widening the types of stories that reach us. A Colombian-American friend recently mentioned how shows like Jane the Virgin and Telenovela, which cultivate experiences from Latin perspectives, failed to offer a window into those worlds outside of the melodramatic telenovela structure. “They haven’t learned how to speak to Latin Americans beyond that format,” she said. Similarly, shows like Empire and Starz’s Power, which I personally love, traffic in a one-sided notion of black affluence: Their protagonists acquired wealth through illegal means–selling drugs. Even Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which debuted on Netflix last year to near unanimous praise, was criticized for its “marked absence of South and East Asian American women.” America’s middle class is rapidly dissolving, yet few shows engage the country’s working poor (though Donald Glover’s Atlanta, coming to FX, captures a vision of middle-class atrophy in brilliant fashion). Despite TV’s current gold rush, shows fail to portray the full plurality of our day-to-day existence.
In 2015, Shonda Rhimes–creative architect behind ABC’s Thursday-night scheduling block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder–gave a speech at the Human Rights Campaign gala in which she voiced her contempt for the way we describe shows that offer more radiant interpretations of the human experience. “I really hate the word diversity,” she said. “I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks.” When I think of Rhimes’ speech, I think back to UPN and the crop of shows that, to a young black kid growing up in Southern California, felt like the world–my world. And I have to wonder how this era of television will look to us in another two decades. Will it seem as inclusive in hindsight as we professed at the time? Or will it be prove, like the UPN-led surge of the ’90s, to have been a momentary gain? The burden shifts to all of us: not just the networks but the creators–and, as those whose support ultimately dictates a show’s success, the consumers. After all, a renaissance is only as meaningful as the art that defines it.
Jason Parham (@nonlinearnotes) is a senior editor at The Fader.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue.