Written by Serie McDougal
What is to be expected from new Black-owned television networks given their relationship to mainstream media? In a political sense, the media is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate, or the fourth branch, of the government because of its extraordinary influence and ability to shape peoples’ thinking about issues and ideas. However, in a more social and psychological sense, the media has long had a powerful influence on public psychology regarding race and culture. For instance, media has been able to shape how the public thinks about African Americans and even how African Americans think about themselves. Media influence is especially critical for African Americans given that they consume nearly twice as much television per day (5 hours) than White Americans (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999). We know that exposure to mainstream television shows is associated with identification with White characters and results in lower self-esteem among Black children (Allen, 1993). However, greater exposure to Black oriented programing is associated with greater identification with Black characters and higher self-esteem among Black children. Given the research on the positive impact of Black oriented programing it is reasonable that Black consumers might have positive expectations and high hopes for the entrée of new Black owned and Black oriented television networks. But, is it possible that such networks will challenge oppressive and stereotypical images of African Americans?
A recent study investigated how the logic of the television media industry influences the missions of Black owned television networks. Chaves and Stroo (2015) conducted a case study on ASPiRE, an upstart Black owned television network developed to provide positive programming for African American families. The researchers examined the mission and programing of ASPiRE. They concluded that ASPiRE is oriented toward an upwardly mobile, middle class, spiritually centered audience. They also argued that ASPiRE’s programing promotes what Gaines (1996) calls an ideology of uplift. African Americans have been able to create counter-hegemonic images through the work of Redd Foxx, Keenan Ivory Wayans and others who used sketch comedy to critique inequality in Black life. However, Chaves and Stroo (2015) argue that the conditions and values of the media industry (conservative, capitalist, and assimilationist) limit Black networks’ ability to produce transformative perspectives and images of Black life. Based on the researchers’ analysis, ASPiRE in particular, does challenge one dimensional images of Blackness, but at the same time, they promote the
hegemonic ideal that social segregation can be overcome through hard work… the idea that Black
culture is best measured by the standards of elite White culture. In its celebration of exemplary
Blacks who have successfully occupied White professional spaces, the network is not only
integrationist in tome, but projects a neoconservative sensibility which places emphasis on individual
exceptionalism over structural barriers to equality. (Chaves and Stroo, 2015)
The crux of the authors’ argument is that ASPiRe’s brand of family programing appears to be transformative in the sense that it challenges images of African Americans as stereotypically hypersexual, shiftless, lazy and violent; however, its brand of Cosby-esque family programming depicts images of Blackness as spiritually centered, affluent, well-spoken, and highly education. Yet, these images are also apolitical, fail to critique racism and social inequality like previous shows, and do not represent the experiences of non-affluent Black families. Chaves and Stroo’s (2015) analysis adds a perspective that forces Black viewers to see oppression in seemingly progressive television programing. However, some may ask if their analysis is too bleak given that there have been and still are Black media that do indeed challenge hegemonic images? Chaves and Stroo (2015) may see such programing as mere exceptions to the rule in a media culture that is clearly bent on domination and maintaining the status quo.
Allen, R.L. (1993). Conceptual model of an African American belief system. In G. Berry & J.K. Asamen
(Eds.), Children and television: Images in a changing sociocultural world (pp.155-176). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Chaves, C.A. & Stroo, S. (2015). ASPiRational: Black cable television and the ideology of uplift. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32 (2), 65-80.
Gaines, K. (1996). Assimilationist minstrelsy as racial uplift ideology: James D. Corrothers’s literary quest for Black leadership. American Quarterly,45, 341-369.
Roberts, D., Foehr, U., Rideout, V., & Brodie, M. (1999). Kids and media at the new millennium. Palo Alto, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Ward, L.M. (2004). Wading through stereotypes: Positive and negative association between media use and Black adolescents’ conceptions of self. Developmental Psychology, 40, 284-294.