A Different World was the last black sitcom to be a hit—but why?

A Different World was the last black sitcom to be a hit—but why?

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

In his essential memoir depicting his life in the TV-writing trenches, Billion-Dollar Kiss, Jeffrey Stepakoff gives the most succinct answer to a perpetual question in television circles: Whatever happened to the black sitcom? In the ’70s, series like The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, and Good Times were Nielsen mainstays, all with either black leads or predominantly black casts. Even more sitcoms featured prominent black characters, often navigating or dealing with a white world. This was all prelude, of course, to the popularity of The Cosby Show, one of the most-watched programs in television history and one that spawned both popular imitators—Family Matters—and a popular sitcom in A Different World. Yet A Different World is the last program with a predominantly black cast to land in the top 10 of the Nielsens, and it seems entirely possible it will hold that title for as long as television continues to exist. Through the ’90s, black sitcoms migrated first to Fox, then to The WB and UPN, and finally to cable outlets like TBS, instead of their once prominent homes on the original “big three” networks. Why?

Stepakoff’s explanation is at once complex and simple. It stems from a series he worked on named Hyperion Bay, a little-known WB teen drama that’s mostly notable for its original premise, which would have revolved around an interracial relationship. The network’s suits eventually nixed that idea, and Stepakoff’s explanation boils down, essentially, to money. Since the early ’80s, networks have increasingly chased younger viewers, usually in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, because said viewers are supposed to spend their money more freely and be more likely to try out new brands. Thus, they’re more attractive to the advertisers who underwrite the broadcast-network business model.

That’s all well and good, in terms of profit, but the pursuit of almighty demographics has also had the effect of making television whiter and whiter, precisely at the same time that the United States has had a non-white population growing more quickly than the white one. This has all changed a bit in the past few years, largely due to the success of ABC’s mid-’00s ensemble dramas Lost and Grey’s Anatomy, but the majority of series still have mostly white casts, and the number of series on broadcast networks with minority leads can be counted on one hand. 

What happened is easy enough to understand, and it’s one of the same reasons for TV’s increasing lack of blue-collar sitcoms: The more networks could provide advertisers with demographic information, the more those advertisers chased the demographics with the most money. According to Stepakoff, in the ’90s, this meant chasing white parents and their teenagers, which ended up being The WB’s demographic. These viewers might have been reliable Cosby viewers 10 years earlier—after all, the Huxtables were affluent, just like the theoretical WB viewers—but increasingly, networks, driven by advertisers, believed that rich white people who would spend the most money on products wanted to see more white people, ideally affluent as well.

But hadn’t that always been the case? Naturally, it had. Stepakoff, then, points to another change in TV that led to this new reality: the repeal of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules by Congress and the Clinton administration in 1993. Briefly, the so-called fin-syn rules prevented too much media consolidation, meaning that TV networks were supposed to be under different ownership than the companies that brought them their programming. Thus, the networks made much of their money on advertising, while the production companies made much of their money once the shows went into syndication and a smaller amount off network licensing fees. Once the fin-syn rules were overturned (largely due to the rise of Fox and cable networks, which didn’t have to play under the same rules), that meant networks could buy programs produced by production companies and studios under the same corporate umbrella as they were. This maximized the amount of profit any one corporation could make off of any one show, and the majority of programs networks air today are produced by companies owned by the same corporation. If not, they’re produced by companies owned by other giant media conglomerates, like Warner Bros. Television. While this was a financial boon to TV networks and led to more ambitious (and probably better) television, it also choked out an important part of the TV landscape: the independent production company.

When A Different World debuted in 1987, by far the most powerful production company in TV was Carsey-Werner Productions, even though the company had only one show on the air, The Cosby Show. The Huxtables so dominated the television landscape at the time that Carsey-Werner could afford to be picky about follow-up projects, and A Different World was the first Carsey-Werner series to make the air after Cosby. (The next, Roseanne, also went on to be a Nielsen top-10 mainstay and was the series that finally toppled Cosby’s reign.) Run by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who had both been comedy development executives at ABC in the ’70s, the company was fond of recruiting outsider voices, particularly stand-up comedians, then building television series around them. The company produced a handful of series before Cosby, but Cosby made Carsey-Werner’s name and bought it the financial room it needed to be choosy with future projects. The Cosby Show was built around Bill Cosby’s voice, and he wanted to do a show to counteract many of the images of black families elsewhere in the media. He wanted two successful parents with five children also primed for success. He wanted stories that were very small, occasionally almost conflict-free, the better for Cosby to start riffing. And as the show ran, he wanted to reflect on the black experience in the United States, on the greats who had made the kind of life the Huxtables enjoyed possible.

This is, perhaps, why it took so long for A Different World to find its voice. Where most Carsey-Werner shows were built around a strong, central voice, A Different World was built around a nebulous concept and the need to get Lisa Bonet off The Cosby Show, where she was increasingly chafing under the family-friendly restrictions of the program. Sending her character, Denise, off to college effectively solved that problem while removing her from the parent program in a way that would bruise fewer egos. It also allowed Cosby to make a series about a subject near and dear to his heart: historically black colleges and the role they’d played in the black experience.

In the early going, both of these things were compromised. Bonet was a fine supporting player for a TV series, but she wasn’t yet ready to carry a show, with her slightly sleepy demeanor and subdued line readings. Thus, the show gravitated more and more to the colorful supporting players in her life. And because executives were worried a show about an black college would be too specific for a TV audience that had rejected many, many attempts to make shows about college in general in the past, Hillman College also had a handful of white students, including a young Marisa Tomei. In its first season, A Different World didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was supposed to be a slightly more mature extension of The Cosby Show, but it was also completely reliant on its parent show to stay alive, leaving it in a tough 8:30 timeslot that didn’t allow for the kinds of college storytelling that might have accurately reflected the higher-education experiences of its viewers. In addition, because the show was no longer about the historically black college presented in the Cosby Show episode that served as a backdoor pilot for the series, it had no real reason to exist. It was a soft, barely formed series about a fictional college, with someone equally soft at its center. The show was a big hit, but that was almost entirely thanks to being sandwiched between Cosby and Cheers. Critics weren’t kind, and the show deserved it.

This has, by and large, become A Different World’s reputation ever since: a good idea for a series that was torn down ultimately by an inability to really grapple with its premise, destroyed by network notes and the wrong lead. Many viewers were aware the show continued to exist for five more seasons, but the show’s reputation seemed to form almost entirely around that first season. The series was heavily retooled between the first and second seasons, however, and the show that existed in its last five years was a better, more daring, and more thoughtful series than its reputation would suggest. What’s more, it may have been one of the most forthright series about the black experience in the United States, digging deep into all sorts of questions about being part of a microcosm in a larger society that didn’t always reflect that microcosm’s needs and wants. And it managed to accomplish all of this while staying a top-10 Nielsen hit. Put a random season-four episode of A Different World on between The Middle and Modern Family, and it would seem downright radical. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, though, it just seemed to fit.

The series’ boost in quality between seasons one and two also had to do with the fact that Carsey-Werner brought in a figure to serve as a strong, central voice for the show in choreographer Debbie Allen. Allen had gone to Howard University, and she aimed to make Hillman more like that school and other historically black colleges. She incorporated elements of theatrical performance and dance into the show, leading to things like a strange, sixth-season dream-theater episode that depicted a gender-reversed version of the 1992 presidential election, in order to make the argument that women should have a greater presence in the political process. It also led to looks back at things that had been demeaning to blacks in the past, in an attempt to rob, say, blackface of some of its power within the context of a family-friendly sitcom.

Allen also reoriented the show in the tradition of Norman Lear’s socially conscious ’70s sitcoms. (NBC in the late ’80s was a richly welcoming place for shows that grew out of this school of thought, and Carsey-Werner, with its embrace of blue-collar and black voices, was as well.) Under her guidance, A Different World tackled the AIDS epidemic, the Rodney King riots, and the Gulf War. Were all of these subjects handled as deftly as they possibly could have been? Of course not. But the show tried to take a look at a particular place and a particular time and being someone of color in that place and time, and that it succeeded as much as it did was rather remarkable. Even more remarkable was that it remained a relatively big hit right up until its final season (when it proved unable to take over for Cosby after the parent show left the air). American viewers were still interested in grappling with these issues, at least at the time.

However, Allen also reoriented the show as a fairly traditional ensemble sitcom. She tossed odd couple Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) into the show’s center after Bonet departed to have a baby with her husband at the time, Lenny Kravitz. (Denise was later written back into The Cosby Show, and the only link between the parent and spinoff became that Clair and Cliff Huxtable were Hillman alumni and might drop by from time to time.) Stuck-up Whitley and easygoing Dwayne didn’t exactly make the most original sitcom leads ever, but they at least proved more dynamic than Denise had been, and the two actors were among the only three who were a part of every season of the show. Allen still wasn’t telling stories about going to college that would reflect the sorts of stories viewers might have recognized from their own experiences of first being without their parents and being able to participate in more adult activities, but she at least came up with something vaguely like a workplace sitcom that had certain predictable rhythms and gags to it. It was a more stable show, even as Allen’s love of theatricality infected every inch of it, creating episodes and characters who played to the cheapest seats.

It’s important not to oversell A Different World. The show is decidedly better than its reputation, but it can be overly broad, and it often feels like it’s beholden to no one but its own crazy creative center. That has gradually been leeched out of the broadcast networks as surely as they’ve gotten whiter and whiter and more and more affluent. Chasing a very narrow segment of the total audience tends to just make programming blander on the whole and makes it easier to more or less predict what point of view it’s going to come from. The repeal of the fin-syn rules may have led to a world where networks could invest more in their programming, because the financial back-end was so much more substantial, but it also choked out the sort of independent, original voices that all but forced them to look at other corners of the American experience than the one television executives were most used to. Carsey-Werner is mostly inoperative nowadays, and no broadcast network has a show with a predominantly black cast. Television has come far in the last 30 years, but it’s also taken large steps backward.

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