By Jason Johnson
Each of these shows was part of the now defunct WB network’s television line-up from the mid-90’s. They were all popular African-American sitcoms that were ranked in the top 10 in black households before getting the axe in 1999. Basically the WB used black shows to stabilize the network then dumped them all when things got better. This “WB” syndrome as I like to call it, can also apply to politics, as it perfectly explains the recent plight of former RNC Chairman Michael Steele.
Broadcast television was dominated by NBC in the 1990’s, so when the WB was launched across the nation in 1995 Warner Brothers executives had a novel idea: Why not create programming for a niche African-American audience that was all but ignored by other networks at the time? From this idea shows such as “Jamie Foxx,” “Steve Harvey” and “Sister, Sister” were born to huge ratings and critical acclaim across black America. In fact, it was black programming that kept the WB alive in the ’90’s as most of their other show attempts had failed (Anyone remember Kirk Cameron’s sitcom “Kirk”? Didn’t think so).
Then, in 1999 it all changed. The station had finally stabilized financially and began to focus exclusively on creating and promoting shows targeted at white teens and young adults. Goodbye “The Hugleys”, hello “Dawson’s Creek,” “Smallville,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed.” It didn’t matter that the black shows were successful. Executives at the WB always aspired to grab the white teen audience like Fox and MTV and had no problem using black shows to get there. I call this the “WB syndrome” – throw some blacks in there early on to sell the product then dump them the moment the white audience is secure. You saw the same thing with Jennifer Lopez’ dating life and Timberland boots.
This syndrome explains Michael Steele’s relationship with the Republican Party. After major losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections and a black man in the White House, the Republican Party had to re-invent itself. So they made their first affirmative action hire and elected Steele to be Republican National Committee chairman. Steele, former Lt. Governor of Maryland was great on television and started a drive to attract more minorities and young people to the party.
Of course there were some Republicans that were not comfortable with the idea of being driven to do anything by a black man unless his name was Hoke Colburn. The Republican National Committee voted to limit Steele’s access to party funds, and his occasional gaffes always became a national story. The overly racist Tea Party movement openly snubbed him leading to conservative pundits calling for his ouster in the summer of 2010. By the time the midterm elections of 2010 came about, many big time Republican donors openly refused to give to the party until Steele either resigned or was voted out, leading to the party having over $20 million in debt in early 2011.
Despite all of this, Steele kept winning. Since Steele took over in 2009 Republicans have flipped half a dozen governor’s mansions from blue to red, took senate seats and won the House of Representatives. Yet last week he was voted out in favor of Reince Priebus, the white, 38-year-old former head of the Wisconsin Republican party.
It’s the WB syndrome in politics. The Republican Party is the party of middle aged and old white people and they aspire to compete with Democrats for younger white voters. The leadership has no problem using black faces and candidates to achieve stability as long as it serves their ultimate goal, which was and always will be more white voters. The GOP used Steele to get stabilized then dumped him for a white guy just like the WB dumped The Wayans Brothers the moment they had Ally McBeal.
In order to avoid cancellation, the WB eventually merged with UPN, both stations purged themselves of any remaining minority targeted programs and created the CW. Despite their best efforts to survive on white viewers alone the CW is still firmly planted in last place. With Steele gone the Republican Party is free to even more brazenly and publicly ally itself with the lunatic fringe of the Tea Party and pursue their prized demographic of young white men. But if their television doppelganger is any indicator, this strategy is a ticket to last place in 2012.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at email@example.com.)