My Life as a Nielsen Family

My Life as a Nielsen Family

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 16 1997 3:30 AM

My Life as a Nielsen Family


       The envelope my diary came in also contained a crisp new one dollar bill. "The enclosed money is a 'token of our appreciation,' " explained the cover letter. Isn't John Huang in trouble for saying something like that? The Nielsen note suggested what I might do with their dollar: "You may wish to use it to brighten the day of a child that you know." In my experience, even with inflation held in check, a dollar is insufficient for day brightening.

       I am charting the TV viewing of a child that I know, my 9-year-old daughter, Sophie. Her favorite networks are the WB and UPN. She is not African-American, the target audience those networks say they are trying to reach, but her favorite shows are family sitcoms, particularly those with all-black casts, a preference she shares with most of her classmates of all races. Why is that?

       Her favorite, as my diary shows, is Fresh Prince. Perhaps this isn't so complicated; everyone goes for Will Smith. He has that which, on television, is more precious than rubies: he's just so darn likable. Sophie also goes for Family Matters, a more dubious desire. But it's darn funny when Steve Urkel gets something stuck on his head, certainly as funny as when Lucille Ball got something stuck on her head.

       There is something disturbing about segregated TV shows. Fifty years from now, will Sister Sister or Moesha look so different from Amos 'n' Andy? The reinventing of segregation as socially progressive is not limited to UPN. Last weekend in Pittsburgh, addressing the annual convention of the NAACP, chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams deviated from her prepared speech and declined to voice strong support for school integration.

       TV, of course, is not the authentic voice of the African-American experience. Though some black sitcoms are written and produced by African-Americans, others are not. Fresh Prince, for instance, was created by Andy and Susan Borowitz, a white husband and wife team. UPN is the proud home not of black but of hack, the fine family sitcoms American television produces with an efficiency that makes us the envy of the developing world. When you're 9, even the lamest old joke is new.

       In 1989, Fox was developing a prime-time sketch comedy show, described as "a black Saturday Night Live." Several TV writers I knew hoped for jobs on the show, but worried that they lacked the knowledge and insight to do well: They were white. One of these writers told me that he would "study to be black," just like he studied for his Harvard MBA. He bought copies of Ebony and Jet and started working on his writing submission. He insisted that with a little preparation "I can become a better black comedy writer than any comedy writer who's actually black." He got the job. And when In Living Color debuted in April of 1990, he was one of the most productive and valued members of its mostly white writing staff.

       Sophie would have enjoyed that show. She likes a good fart joke.