When I graduated from college and got cable for the first time, I discovered the wonderful world of reruns. And so, long before binging TV shows became an actual sociological phenomenon, I regularly fell into happy fugue states with the “Law & Order” franchise, and with “Living Single,” Yvette Lee Bowser’s brilliant sitcom about a group of friends living in New York, starring Queen Latifah as magazine editor Khadijah James.
But when I got a “Living Single” craving last week, I discovered something frustrating: The series isn’t streaming anywhere, and only the first of the show’s five seasons is available on a DVD release. “Living Single” is every bit as sprawling and funny as “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother,” and its female characters beat “Sex and the City” to the spiky, complicated punch by five years. But if you wanted to watch the whole thing, start to finish, and to watch it in order, you’d have to DVR the TV One reruns and assemble the episodes in order yourself.
It’s not exactly news that series built around black characters have been somewhat slow to move to streaming services, or that many of these shows never got complete DVD releases in the first place. But the list of shows that are not available is striking.
After my “Living Single” realization, I went through and checked both Netflix and Where to Watch, a database run by the Motion Picture Association of America and its member studios, that tracks the availability of shows and movies on services such as Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, iTunes and Disney Movies Anywhere. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Among the black shows that aren’t available to stream on any of the services I checked? “Girlfriends.” “Sanford and Son.” “Everybody Hates Chris.” “The Steve Harvey Show.” “Sister, Sister.” “What’s Happening!!” “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.” “Roc.” “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Classics such as “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Diff’rent Strokes” are locked up in DirecTV’s streaming service. And it’s not just black shows: Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” isn’t available to stream, either.
So, what’s going on here? I talked to Tim Havens, a communications studies professor at the University of Iowa who studies the intersection of race, ethnicity and the media, who advanced two theories but cautioned that it’s been hard to pin down a definitive answer to this lingering question.
The first is that the streaming rights to shows are often sold in big chunks, and it’s possible that the rights to some of these shows might be concentrated in studios such as Warner Brothers and Fox and haven’t been included in part of big package deals. The second might be that streaming services have decided that black shows just aren’t valuable to them, either because they believe that affluent white audiences won’t watch those shows or because they aren’t chasing African American consumers’ money.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s tragic that white audiences who loved “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother” or “Sex and the City” would deny themselves the pleasures of “Living Single” because of the characters’ color, it’s worth digging into the data to see what streaming services black Americans are already using, and what they say they want in their programming.
Horowitz Research, in the company’s “State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition 2016,” conducted 1051 surveys online and 1019 phone interviewers with television viewers in urban markets to find out what those audiences were watching, how they were watching it, and what they’d like to watch more of.
Fifty-three percent of black respondents told the researchers that they had access to a subscription-based streaming video service, up against 56 percent of total respondents, 57 percent of white viewers, 58 percent of Asian viewers and 64 percent of Hispanic respondents. But those same black respondents were less likely to use the services where many classic TV shows and original new series are collected: 47 percent of black respondents said they use Netflix, up against 49 percent of the survey as a whole. Twenty-three percent of African American respondents said they used Hulu, which has the deepest penetration of white viewers. And just 22 percent of black respondents said they have Amazon Prime Instant Video, well below the 34 percent of whites, 36 percent of Asians and 36 percent of Hispanics who said they use the service.
So what might turn African Americans into more regular streaming service users? The answer, Horowitz found, was content that feels like it’s created for black audiences. Twenty-eight percent of African American respondents said they “regularly watch programming that keeps them connected to Black culture.” Thirty-six percent regularly tune into channels that are aimed at black audiences. Sixty percent of black respondents said that having a mainly multicultural cast was a big plus for them when it came to deciding what to watch; 58 percent said that a mainly black cast was a significant draw; and 45 percent of African American respondents said that story lines that explicitly address race were appealing to them.
In other words, if streaming services want black consumers’ money, they have a ready-made solution: Get the streaming rights to preexisting shows about black characters, or greenlight more shows like them. At a certain point, if those services choose not to pursue this obvious means of developing new audiences, it’ll be hard to conclude that they’re leaving money on the table because in some cases, they just don’t want it.
But access to the classics of black television is about more than streaming services’ bottom lines.
As Constance Gibbs, who writes about television, put in a 2013 post in which she tracked the streaming and DVD availability of black sitcoms: “If shows featuring black people aren’t made available to everyone–not just black people–then how will a wider audience of people come into contact with black shows? If they were available as easily as [insert random show that people rarely watch or talk about but is streaming], we could get more than just black people watching these shows. We could expand the typical audience of these shows to include other races and the next generation. And in doing that, we could inspire writers and producers and networks to give more black written/black-led TV shows a shot (especially on network television).”
I’d take this a step further. Making television shows created by African Americans and starring black people harder to find also makes it harder to see the version of TV’s past where these shows are critical and commercial successes.
“I think there’s a curating function that these services provide, and they become the curators of what American television history is, in the way that ‘Nick at Nite’ used to be,” Havens told me, saying these holes in TV history limit what he can teach and screen for his students. “There is a way in which because of the unlimited nature of Netflix or any streaming service, this gives the impression that this is the entirety of what’s there. . . . I have some copies of some ‘Amos ‘n Andy‘ episodes, I have like two episodes from ‘Beulah’ [which aired between 1950 and 1953]. I can find a lot of 1950s white TV, but finding the 1950s black TV is hard.”
It’s a misconception with real consequences. If television’s past is all white, then of course the current boom in shows starring and created by people of color, from “Scandal” to “black-ish,” and from “Empire” to “Fresh Off the Boat” seems like a new — and potentially risky — diversion from the past. But if audiences know and love “Living Single,” or “The Jeffersons,” or “Girlfriends,” then television’s whitest years start to look like the real aberration, or at least like a conscious choice, part of what Havens described as a “boom and bust” cycle in black television.
“There is a way in which it seems like TV has gotten more diverse,” Havens said, “when it’s in some ways less diverse than it ever was.”