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Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television

Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television

by Donald Bogle

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A landmark study by the leading critic of African American film and television

Primetime Blues is the first comprehensive history of African Americans on network television. Donald Bogle examines the stereotypes, which too often continue to march across the screen today, but also shows the ways in which television has been invigorated by


A landmark study by the leading critic of African American film and television

Primetime Blues is the first comprehensive history of African Americans on network television. Donald Bogle examines the stereotypes, which too often continue to march across the screen today, but also shows the ways in which television has been invigorated by extraordinary black performers, whose presence on the screen has been of great significance to the African American community.

Bogle's exhaustive study moves from the postwar era of Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy to the politically restless sixties reflected in I Spy and an edgy, ultra-hip program like Mod Squad. He examines the television of the seventies, when a nation still caught up in Vietnam and Watergate retreated into the ethnic humor of Sanford and Son and Good Times and the poltically conservative eighties marked by the unexpected success of The Cosby Show and the emergence of deracialized characters on such dramatic series as L.A. Law. Finally, he turns a critical eye to the television landscape of the nineties, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I'll Fly Away, ER, and The Steve Harvey Show.

Note: The ebook edition does not include photos.

Editorial Reviews

Renee Graham
There was a time when seeing an African American face on television was so rare, many black folks would call their families and friends to make sure everyone tuned in. It didn't matter if it was Pearl Bailey on The Ed Sullivan Show or Greg Morris on Mission: Impossible - it was an event.

Those viewers understood the power of television to shape society's racial and cultural attitudes. Also, they grasped the importance of seeing their lives and faces reflected in its flickering images.

Donald Bogle's exhaustive, entertaining Primetime Blues recalls the long history of African Americans on network television. It has been an uneasy history, but one that has clearly, if slowly, progressed from the stereotypical buffoonery of Amos 'n' Andy to the buppie comforts of The Cosby Show to today's sophisticated black characters on such programs as Gideon's Crossing and Boston Public.

Singer-actress Ethel Waters was invited by NBC to perform on an experimental broadcast in 1939. The one-night-only "Ethel Waters Show," Bogle writes, "led the way for everything of color to come over the next half-century."

A radio staple created by two whites (who also played the title characters), Amos 'n' Andy concerned the exploits of two bumbling black men. Premiering on TV with an all-black cast in 1951, it was a hit, but it was criticized by the NAACP for its "perpetuation of stereotyped characterizations."

Bogle (who also wrote the definitive history of blacks in film, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks") has a prodigious command of this subject. He acknowledges advancements but also criticizes 1990s shows like The Wayans Bros. and Martin for reviving the communal coonery of 1950s television.

For all its improvements, Bogle says, TV has been "for many African-Americans, a frustrating and exasperating experience.... "

But, he notes, as singer Etta James once said of black TV pioneers: "All the black actors were heroes. They might play fools on the screen, but folks in the neighborhood knew it took more than a fool to break into lily-white Hollywood."
RealCities RealBooks
Patricia Chui
The author's meticulous research and ambitious inclusiveness make the book feel more like a catalog than a social narrative at times, but Primetime Blues is an important chronicle of African-American and American television history.
Brill's Content
Julie Salamon
...his thoroughness and insightful analyses are admirable. This is a valuable chronicle.
New York Times Book Review
A revealing, thought-provoking and richly detailed look at the small screen’s highlights . . .
Ken Tucker
. . . Bogle’s rigorous history is a valuable one for the depth of its research and its refusal to patronize . . .
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From its earliest days, television has always had a problem with color. The advent of Technicolor didn't change the fact that most actors on TV were white. Even in the mid-1970s, when African-American actors began appearing more regularly on network shows, the roles open to them were rigidly circumscribed. In this thoroughly researched, witty and often shocking social history, media scholar Bogle fashions an in-depth chronicle of the way television has mirrored and influenced the politics of race in the U.S. His analysis remains attuned to how the earliest black performers--"Eddie" Rochester on The Jack Benny Show; Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers playing the indefatigably cheerful black maid Beulah; and Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams in Amos n' Andy--managed to communicate authentically with African-American viewers, despite often finding themselves "cast in parts that were shameless, dishonest travesties of African American life and culture." Situating its critique within a broad economic and industry analysis, the book addresses such major issues as the pressure of sponsors and the advent of cable on the portrayal of African-American subject matter. The author of Dorothy Dandridge and Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, & Bucks, Bogle pulls no punches (e.g., chastising the popular Sanford and Son for what he sees as its anti-Asian racism and homophobia). This major new work in television and media studies will be welcomed by both academics and general readers. 60 b&w photos. Agent, Marie Brown. 5-city author tour. (Feb. 24) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The history of network television is filled with examples of talented black actors tackling memorable roles in noted primetime television series. In scholarly yet accessible fashion, Bogle (history, New York Univ.; Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography) brings these examples together. His book is particularly notable as perhaps the first complete chronicle of the evolution of black television from its inception in the 1940s to the present. The author, who has covered the exploits of black TV and media personalities before (he recently appeared on an E! Entertainment Network biography of Josephine Baker), here shows us that people of color have helped define network television as we know it today and continue to contribute creatively to the medium. His illuminating and entertaining study is recommended for all popular TV and media sections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.]--David M. Lisa, Wayne P.L., NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Prime Time Blues considers both the potential and the disappointment of the television medium as a vehicle for fostering equality and civil rights, examining African Americans on network television and the shows which have fostered racial stereotyping through dramas and shows. Television has distorted race images in the past and continues to do so today: Prime Time Blues explores exactly how.

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Primetime Blues

African Americans on Network Television

By Donald Bogle

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2001 Donald Bogle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9445-7


1. THE 1950s: SCRAPS

At the tail end of the Depression, a former blues singer, then appearing in a Broadway drama, was asked by the NBC radio network to perform on an experimental broadcast for a new medium. She agreed — and made broadcast history. The year was 1939. The woman was Ethel Waters. The program was The Ethel Waters Show. The new medium then in development was called television.

On The Ethel Waters Show, Waters — along with the African American actresses Fredi Washington and Georgette Harvey — performed a dramatic sequence from her hit play Mamba's Daughters. Also appearing, in various skits, were actors Philip Loeb and Joey Faye. "Results offered sharp contrasts — all the way from deeply stirring drama to feeble slapstick comedy and not-too-effective scientific lecture," Variety wrote. "When it was good it was quite good but when it was bad it was capital B." Regardless, as the evening's headliner, the mighty Ethel Waters, midway in what would be a long, turbulent, and illustrious career, had become — at this very early time — the first African American to star in her own program on the tube. Television hasn't been the same since.

Ethel Waters would return to television — eleven years later — as the star of Beulah. As such, she would find herself saddled with a role, that of a warmhearted maid named Beulah, that misused her talents and, more often than not, distressed the actress herself. But her very presence led the way for everything of color to come over the next half century.

With that early Ethel Waters Show, a one-night-only event, the National Broadcasting Company hoped to see if such a television transmission could be effectively executed. The network also wanted to gauge how audiences would respond to this little box with the big window. By 1939, the idea of television had already been kicking around for years. The Radio Corporation of America, General Electric, and Westinghouse, which were NBC's parent companies, had funded important early research on television. In 1923, RCA's David Sarnoff felt confident enough about the new medium to write a memo in which he said, "I believe that television, which is the technical name for seeing as well as hearing by radio, will come to pass in the future." Four years later, A.T. & T. successfully transmitted pictures in a hookup between New York and Washington, D.C. By 1928, G.E.'s station W2XCW had begun broadcasting regularly from Schenectady. Three years later, the Columbia Broadcasting System opened its station W2XAB in New York. For almost twenty years, television broadcasting, sprouting up slowly here and there, would be experimental and noncommercial. All of that, however, changed after World War II.

By then, the new medium's technological kinks had been worked out, economically priced consoles had been manufactured, and television sets began turning up in American homes. The three networks that had controlled radio — NBC, CBS, and the American Broadcasting Company — dominated the new medium, along with a fourth network, DuMont.

From the start, television established itself by borrowing heavily from radio. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Americans had sought most of their nighttime entertainment at the movies, sometimes attending three or four times a week in record numbers. But on other evenings, they most likely sat huddled in their living rooms, listening to the radio. Some nights Americans would even forgo the picture show to tune in to an episode of their favorite radio program. Unlike the movies with their glamorous larger-than-life stars — those dazzling emblems of beauty, heat, and power that could be as threatening as they were charming — radio tended to tame situations and domesticate personalities. Coming into homes nightly, the voices — the ideas they represented, the situations they dramatized — conformed to set notions that Americans had about themselves and their way of life. The ideal radio personalities were relatively plain everyday people without any great emotional disarray, political gripes, or social tensions. Just common folks like cornball Fibber McGee and Molly. Or a regular old cowpoke like Gene Autry. Or "ordinary" eccentrics like comic Jack Benny or George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Radio also prospered with its weekly, primetime programming staples: the dramatic show, the variety show, and a type of program it could be credited with having created: the sitcom. Sometimes loud and rowdy, sometimes providing a satiric comment on American manners and attitudes, the sitcom set up a problematic but funny situation within its first few minutes, then proceeded to develop and milk it for laughs through the use of familiar characters and settings. Finally, by the end of each episode, the situation was neatly resolved. Every joke, every line of dialogue, every incident, every action or even the mood of the characters went into building and then resolving the comic situation. A tightly wound cord, it could have no loose ends.

Radio's sitcoms were morality plays that dramatized issues about honesty, or loyalty, or maybe the importance of hard work or family ties. The sitcoms never presented the audience with any situation — any moral message — that might be unsettling or disturbing. The lessons were always familiar and predictable. Viewers just didn't know how the story would get around to making its point. During the Depression era and the postwar years, radio's sitcoms proved adept at reassuring a troubled nation that everything was fundamentally fine in the land of the free and the home of the brave; that order was maintained and justice was served.

Network programmers were keenly aware that radio had prepared audiences for television: the idea of solid entertainment in the home; of soothing, reassuring images; of well-packaged moral lessons in a fifteen-minute or half-hour timespan. And, of course, radio's basic staples — its dramatic shows, variety shows, and sitcoms — all moved comfortably to primetime television.

At first the commercial prospects looked dismal. Sponsors were skeptical about the medium's ability to sell their products. In early 1948, NBC lost $13,000 a day on television. On radio, $27,215 was considered a low advertising rate for a minute's worth of time. But in the early years of television, the rate for a sixty-second commercial was a piddling $1,510. No one was yet convinced that people would really sit at home and watch this little picture box.

After the glum postwar start, however, the tide soon turned as television programmers came up with hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The real turning point was The Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, known as Uncle Miltie and Mr. Television, which brought millions of new viewers to the tube. Other variety programs, such as Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town and later Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's Your Show of Shows, also clicked with viewers, as did sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. As the hits helped sell sets and hook an even larger audience on the box, they also brought in more sponsors, which eventually led to television's moneymaking powers — and its content. By the 1948–49 season, every network hour had a sponsor. Some critics of television came to believe that the networks cared less about the shows than about the sponsors. Some even argued that entertainment segments were there simply to make space in between the commercials. But TV was here to stay. In 1950, over six million sets were sold. By 1951, sales soared to sixteen million sets. Once coast-to-coast complex coaxial cable (which could carry broadcast video) was laid, television became a truly national medium.


In the late 1940s, as this loose and free-flowing new medium struggled to work its way into the American home, not yet bowing to any particular social or political pressures, still hungry for material, and, most important, not yet driven by the concerns of big advertisers, postwar television sometimes took a chance on the offbeat and opened its doors to African American performers. Almost from the start, the variety shows featured Black guest stars. From Pearl Bailey to Marian Anderson to Ella Fitzgerald, Joyce Bryant, Sarah Vaughan, Pigmeat Markham, Eartha Kitt, Peg Leg Bates, and Cab Calloway, African American entertainers made their way into American homes through song and dance.

Occasionally, local programming could be important, especially in the powerful New York market. In 1948, the New York CBS affiliate hired Black entertainer Bob Howard to star in The Bob Howard Show. A fifteen-minute program that ran nightly (except for Saturday and Sunday), The Bob Howard Show was basically a one-man operation on which Howard sang and played the piano. Even then, his material was a familiar mix of the old and the (relatively) new. On his very first program, Howard performed the tune that Black actor Dooley Wilson made famous in the movie Casablanca, "As Time Goes By," as well as the old minstrel favorite "Dark Town Strutters." Aware of the demands of the new medium, Howard knew how to play to the camera. When he sang a number like "Them There Eyes," he widened his eyes exuberantly and smiled broadly. Between songs, he chatted and often promoted upcoming CBS shows.

For later generations, Howard's act would hardly look offbeat or unusual. Here was one more colored song-and-dance man, plying his wares. Yet strangely enough, The Bob Howard Show helped transform the American living room. For the first time, audiences could sit in their homes and see a Black man hosting the proceedings, calling the shots, and literally running the show. No one at CBS seemed particularly concerned about any adverse reactions, quite a contrast from what would happen only a few years later when another African American man, Nat "King" Cole, hosted his own show — with controversial and disastrous results. But television in 1948 seemed too much of a likable, bumbling kid just learning to walk and talk to be fearful of Howard; too busy to think that anything like color might stunt its growth. After thirteen months, The Bob Howard Show went off the air. Later, beginning in 1951, Howard hosted the show on another local New York station.

Other African Americans also turned up weekly. The same year that Howard's program debuted, the DuMont network broadcast a sitcom called The Laytons. Having first appeared as a local New York television program, it starred African American actress Amanda Randolph as a cheerful maid. Of course, the uncheerful Black maid was a personage that American films and now television rarely seemed to be aware of. The Laytons, however, had a quick demise, appearing first in August 1948 and then dropped from the network the following October. The program had so little effect on audiences that few people even remembered its having been on. But it introduced that tube staple: the Black domestic as TV personality.

In September 1949, CBS aired a national Black variety show, Sugar Hill Times, hosted by Apollo Theater emcee Willie Bryant. A live one-hour program that was broadcast three times a week at 8 p.m., each set of weekly episodes had a different title. It was Uptown Jubilee one week; then Harlem Jubilee another week; then Sugar Hill Times. The series went off the air by the end of October, 1950, but among its stars were comic Timmie Rogers, the Don Redmond Orchestra, and a handsome newcomer named Harry Belafonte.


In 1950, television took a more adventurous turn when the DuMont Network launched The Hazel Scott Show. Originally broadcast as a local New York program and then going network, running for fifteen minutes on Friday evenings — and later Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — at 7:45, The Hazel Scott Show was yet another early program that used its Black host in an acceptable musical format. The show, however, broke ground. In an age when most TV hosts were men, its host was a woman, a Black woman at that, and a distinctive personality.

By 1950, Hazel Scott's background, which was already well known to viewers, made her something of a novelty on the entertainment scene. Born in Trinidad in 1920, Scott was the daughter of progressive parents: her father, a well-known Black scholar and college professor; her mother, a talented music student and later a professional musician. A child prodigy, Scott learned to read at age three, was discovered to have perfect pitch at three and a half, and soon afterward was playing the piano. By age five, she was improvising.

Later, when her family moved to New York City, a teenage Hazel, too young to attend the Juilliard School of Music, studied privately with a professor at the school. Still a teenager, she appeared at New York's chic supper club Café Society. There she became known for jazzing the classics, for turning the passionate chords of Rachmaninoff into a spicy boogie-woogie. Or giving a classical bent to a fast-moving pop tune. Film critic James Agee once criticized her for "niggery" antics during some of her boogie-woogie numbers. And African American writer Amiri Baraka once dismissed "the shabbiness, even embarrassment, of Hazel Scott playing 'concert boogie woogie' before thousands of white middle-class music lovers." But criticism aside, Scott — with her intelligence, her hauteur, her worldliness — was generally considered a progressive symbol for African American female entertainers.

From the clubs, Scott went to Hollywood in the early 1940s. There, she usually maintained her dignity and decorum, providing movie audiences with a counter-image to most of what Hollywood had said about African American women. No servile simpleton was she. No ditzy uneducated dunce. Her manager, Barney Josephson, had it written into her contracts that she could appear only as herself in such movies as Something to Shout About, I Dood It, The Heat's On, and Broadway Rhythm. Consequently, unlike most African American women in mainstream movies, Scott (like Lena Horne) was never cast as a maid. Instead she often appeared elegantly dressed in sophisticated settings, most impressively in Rhapsody in Blue, in which she coolly sang Gershwin's "The Man I Love" in French and English.

In her private life, Scott also maintained a composed and commanding image — with some political kick. As the second wife of fiery Black politico Adam Clayton Powell, she represented half of a new kind of Negro couple: educated, cultured, political, outspoken; a modern woman who didn't brook fools easily. Once when a restaurant refused to serve her, Hazel Scott sued and won. When appearing in the South, Scott refused to perform before segregated audiences. What always came across in her personal appearances was Scott's sense of her self-worth; her proud unwillingness to ever appear meek or submissive.

The Hazel Scott Show opened with the camera panning across an urban skyline, then revealing a set that was supposedly a room off the terrace of a posh penthouse. There sat the shimmering Scott at her piano, like an empress on her throne, presenting at every turn a vision of a woman of experience and sophistication. Energetically, she might perform Gershwin's " 'S Wonderful." Or "I'll Remember April." Or a swing version of Brahms's "Hungarian Dance Number 5." Or a torch song. Or a spiritual (on which she would accompany herself on the organ). Surprisingly, her urbane fare and style worked well for television. "Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package," Variety wrote. "Most engaging element in the airer is the Scott personality, which is dignified, yet relaxed, and versatile."


Excerpted from Primetime Blues by Donald Bogle. Copyright © 2001 Donald Bogle. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald Bogle is the author of numerous books, including Dorothy Dandridge and Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies&Bucks. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University and lives in Manhattan.
Donald Bogle is the author of numerous books, including Dorothy Dandridge and Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies&Bucks. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University and lives in Manhattan.

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