Shades of Grey: Television in Black and White

Recent trends in black and white viewership are changing TV's big picture, making it not so black and white.

A few months ago, I took on the topic of daytime TV convinced that, in 2013, after decades of population expansion and demographic shifts, there was no way that the daytime audience was still primarily stay-at-home moms…. But, in the process of researching and writing the article, I learned that despite a few evolving trends, the primary audience for daytime TV was, yes, stay-at-home moms.

Recently, when I decided to look at the concept of what I call primetime TV’s “self-segregation” -- that what whites are watching and what blacks are watching are two distinctly separate lists -- I assumed that I would, once again, find a deep and troubling divide. I had more than just a hunch to go on for this assumption. Back in 1996 I had read a stunning list, the top 10 shows among African-American viewers for a random week as determined by the A.C. Nielsen Company. It contained such shows as Living Single, Martin, New York Undercover, and Family Matters.

All these shows had at least a few things in common: 1. they featured predominately African-American casts and 2. they were no where to be found on Nielsen’s general list of “America’s” most popular shows. That top 10 list instead included titles like ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, and 60 Minutes. In fact, not only did these shows not factor into the general, overall Nielsen top 10, they didn’t even dent the top 20.

Little had changed by 2004 when, as reported by Nielsen, the top 10 shows "for" African-American audiences included Girlfriends, Half and Half, Second Time Around, Eve, One on One and America’s Next Top Model. Meanwhile, the top 10 in terms of sheer high numbers of overall viewers were such series as CSI, Desperate Housewives, Survivor, ER, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Only three shows found a place among both black and white audiences: Without a Trace, Monday Night Football and the aforementioned CSI.

Despite the overlap, I viewed this wide discrepancy between what whites watched and what blacks watched as deeply disturbing. Although I'm well aware that television ceased being the Great Unifier of the Nation from the moment we started getting more than one channel -- and especially after the cable television channel explosion in the early '80s -- the rising gap in popular viewing choices between these two groups suggested we were sociologically growing further and further apart not only in our tastes in entertainment but, perhaps, in everything else, as well.

Adding to this alarm, for me at least, were other non-TV trends of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. During that time, many high schools began planning and staging separate high school proms and graduation ceremonies for black students and other students of color. It was a trend that extended into the 2000s, as well. In 2004, in Toombs County, Georgia, Hispanic students took it upon themselves to hold their own separate prom specifically tailored towards their ethnicity. As recently as 2009, UCLA was holding a variety of graduation ceremonies which were divided up race, including those specifically for Hispanic, Vietnamese, and black students. There were also separate ceremonies just for women and one just for gay students.

Thankfully, the tide seems to have turned in the past couple of years—at least in some areas. In April of 2013, Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Georgia garnered national attention due to the fact that, after much public outcry, for the first time in its history, its high school prom would be an integrated one, black and white students together.

But what about TV?

During its Seinfeld / Friends rating heyday, NBC found itself unofficially tagged the “Nothing but Caucasians” network by a few vocal dissenters.

Still, the long-standing division of television viewing based along racial lines is a phenomenon that some fractions of the broadcast and cable industry have long depended upon and chosen to pursue and exploit. In the name of niche programming and financial solvency, carefully cast and “ethnically”-tailored programming has often been used either as a basic business model (BET, TVOne, etc.) or as a savvy early audience builder (as both FOX and the now–ceased CW originally did). And, so far, few viewers seem to be complaining.

The rising voluntary separateness of TV audiences, which probably dates back to the days of TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy and Julia, and which became more and more pronounced in the post-Cosby '90s, was something that was not only noticed by industry leaders, programming executives and advertisers but by other industries, as well. A case in point: since the early '90s, and greatly enabled by wider spread use of the company’s PeopleMeters, ratings giant A.C. Nielsen has been calculating and publishing a separate weekly top 10 list specifically measuring African-American viewers. This second report is still being generated today.

But a look at that separate list today is to find things are quite different than they were only a few years ago.

According to the Nielsen’s own website, for the randomly checked week of 25 May 2013, the top rated shows among all surveyed households were: NCIS; Dancing with the Stars (Monday); NCIS: Los Angeles; Dancing with the Stars (Tuesday); The Voice (Monday); The Voice (Tuesday); American Idol (Wednesday); 60 Minutes; American Idol (Thursday); Castle and CBS NCAA Basketball.

Meanwhile, the top 10 for African-American viewers for that same week contained eight of the same programs including American Idol, The Voice, 60 Minutes, NCAA Basketball, Dancing with the Stars and NCIS: Los Angeles. Only the Kerry Washington-starring drama Scandal (which notably grabbed the top spot in the African-American viewers list) and Grey’s Anatomy (which came in tenth on the list), were different.

For the week of 18 November 2013, sports was the great equalizer as three football games and one NFL aftershow made the top ten lists for both groups. But, they weren’t alone. Other shows included were Dancing with the Stars, Person of Interest, and NCIS: LA.

Some differences in black and white viewers still remain. The original NCIS is high for overall viewers but is notably absent from the top choices of African-Americans who prefer Scandal and (still) Grey’s Anatomy.

The differences are notable and seem to speak to some racially-based viewing preferences. The top-rated Scandal has a black female lead (only the second series in primetime TV history to do so, by the way; Get Christie Love! was the first) and Grey’s Anatomy retains an ample diversity in its cast. Furthermore, does NCIS: LA out rate its parent show, NCIS, because African-American rapper/actor LL Cool J is one of the leads?

Regardless, the rising commonality of these two lists is hopeful.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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