While today’s television’s landscape is arguably as diverse as its audience, that hasn’t always been the case. From its beginnings in the late 1940s, American television was a nearly all-white medium., producing a troubling and incorrect image of a society in which people of color were all but invisible.
Throughout television’s first thirty years of broadcast, people of color were generally cast in highly stereotypical roles, like the Mexican banditos of “The Cisco Kid” or the slapstick duo in the mistral show-inspired “Amos and Andy.” For Native Americans, many acting jobs went to Caucasians masquerading in “red face.” African-American actors were marginalized into largely one-dimensional roles, nearly always playing servants or providing comedic relief. As recent as the 1950s and early ‘60s, just one network show featured an all-black cast. Asian-Americans faced similar stereotyping. Even martial arts master Bruce Lee was relegated to the role of a subservient houseboy on “The Green Hornet.”
Despite widespread discrimination, another tide was rising. Gradually, people began to push the networks to allow more roles for people of color and by the mid 1970s, producer Norman Lear was ushering in a new wave of African-Americans with shows like “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” These brave actors, producers and directions blazed a trail through American culture, overcoming unimaginable obstacles and setting the stage for a more equitable future. Groundbreaking shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Trek” visualized a future in which people of every ethnicity worked together while “Julia” portrayed a strong, professional African-American woman, a landmark role model for the millions of young women who tuned in each week. Sitcoms like “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show” and “All-American Girl” provided audiences with a new perspective on the American family – one that more accurately reflected off screen society. Together, these courageous pioneers of television broke through barriers to make television better.
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The Cosby Show
By 1983, television sitcoms were in steep decline. Of the top 10 shows, none were comedies. Enter veteran actor Bill Cosby (“I Spy”) and his modern family comedy, “The Cosby Show.” More than any other sitcom of its time, NBC’s “The Cosby Show” broke through color and class barriers and into the living rooms of the American people. Millions tuned in each week of the show’s eight seasons to watch comedian Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, the patriarch of a large, upper-middle class Brooklyn family.
Not only was Bill Cosby the era’s most prominent man in standup, he was also the country’s most lovable dad, raising a generation of viewers on a mix of stern looks and silly one liners. From its inception until the show’s finale in 1992, Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show cast revived network television ratings, drastically changed the face of American comedy and left a lasting mark on the sitcom genre.
In September of 1968, NBC premiered the first episode of what promised to be a truly revolutionary sitcom. “Julia” starred African-American actress and singer Diahann Carroll in the title role, making waves as one of the first television shows to resist placing African-American characters in stereotypical parts. Carroll’s Julia was a mother, a widow and a professional nurse, living with her young son in a nice suburban home. What made Julia different was that it was the first sitcom to portray an African American woman with a college degree thriving in a professional position.
Despite its progressive design, “Julia” was critiqued for not engaging deeply enough in the highly charged Civil Rights-era politics of the time. Although “Julia’s” broadcast made waves during the turbulent 1960s, the characters and their creators stayed far away from any associations with activism. For Carroll, just the presence of a person of color on television was enough of a contribution. “There was nothing like this young successful mother on the air,” Carroll explained, emphasizing the show’s social impact. “And we thought that it might be a very good stepping stone.” Though “Julia” was only on the air for three seasons, its treatment of African-American characters represented a significant turning point in television history.
Star Trek: The Original Series
When “Star Trek” premiered in 1966, the beloved science fiction series imagined a distinctly diverse future. The original crew of the starship Enterprise featured no less than two people of color as leading characters – African-American actress Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura and Asian-American actor George Takei as Hikaru Sulu – making “Star Trek” one of the most racially integrated shows of its time.
In an era when most Asian-appearing actors were only cast as untrustworthy villains, Takei’s Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu indicated a tremendous step forward for Asian-Americans on television. Similarly, Nichele Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura represented strides in the televised depiction of both African-Americans and women, who were traditionally relegated to subservient, minor roles. “She was a smart, intelligent part of the crew,” recalled actress and TV personality Whoopi Goldberg. “Things could not happen without talking to her as well, so I loved that. I loved that – that it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, she’s cooking.’” Though NBC canceled “Star Trek” after a brief three-season run, the show reached a new audience in syndication and gained a loyal cult following.
By the time her short-lived family sitcom hit the airwaves in 1994, Margaret Cho was already a successful standup comedian. With “All-American Girl,” Cho wanted to provide television audiences with an image of an American family that more accurately reflected the one she and so many other Asian-Americans had grown up yearning to see. The sitcom starred Cho as Margaret Kim, a modern, 23-year-old Korean-American who often struggled with her conservative, traditional family.
Unfortunately, “All-American Girl” suffered from poor ratings due to public scrutiny, uninspired writing and difficult relations between the cast and production officials. “So much emphasis was put on our ethnicity and the fact that we were Asian-American, that took us out of comedy,” explained Cho, describing the relationship between her show’s political ambitions and its unpopularity amongst audiences. Despite Cho’s best efforts, “All-American Girl” was canceled by ABC after only two seasons. It remains the only sitcom in US history to feature a family of Asian descent at its center.
I Love Lucy
The classic comedy series “I Love Lucy” will forever be recognized as one of the first American television programs to cast a Latino actor in a lead role. The show made Lucille Ball a beloved icon, but it was her husband, Desi Arnaz, who had the most profound effect on the American television landscape. Throughout “I Love Lucy’s” incredibly successful six-season run, Arnaz oversaw every aspect of production, including the difficult task of coordinating the first sitcom filmed in front of a live audience. In the early 1950s, the technical challenge of simultaneously operating three cameras and a studio audience in real time was considered insurmountable. But Desi Arnaz found a way.
Given Desi’s role as the highest profile Latino in America, Ball and Arnaz worked to ensure “I Love Lucy” didn’t perpetuate ethnic stereotypes. Arnaz’s Ricky Ricardo was an intelligent, successful businessman, the rational, levelheaded counterpart to Lucy’s offbeat, goofball persona. “I Love Lucy” accrued five Emmy Awards during its broadcast and helped to redefine the sitcom genre, setting the standard for racial inclusion in American comedy.
Though he already had lead roles in a range of important shows including the hit series “Miami Vice,” Latino-American actor Edward James Olmos viewed his performance as Commander William “Bill” Adama on the award-winning “Battlestar Galactica” as having the greatest impact in changing racial views. The show, which premiered in 2005 and spanned four highly rated seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel, was set in the distant future and featured a cast that defied the boundaries of race.
As commander, Edward James Olmos was at the helm of “Battlestar Galactica,” a remarkable role for a Latino actor, even in the 21st century. In terms of ethnic diversity, the vision presented by “Battlestar Galactica mirrored the racial harmony first imagined by “Star Trek” some forty years prior. “There is only one race and that’s what the show is really about,” Olmos explained. “The human race.” After “Battlestar Galactica” wrapped in 2009, it spurred a slew of TV and web spin-offs, furthering its reach and increasing its powerful social impact.