New "Wonder Years" Revives a 1970s Tactic for Diversifying TV. Will it Work?Roundup
tags: racism, African American history, 1970s, diversity, popular culture, television
Kate L. Flach is currently a lecturer at California State University, Long Beach where she specializes in 20th century cultural and political history.
The opening scene of ABC’s new version of “The Wonder Years” (2021) establishes the show’s premise — a familiar one, even though it is set in 1968. Twelve-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha Williams) has just received “the police talk” from his parents, a presidential election has created a racial divide, and Americans fear a global flu pandemic. The message is clear: Our contemporary social and political problems are nothing new.
But the remake isn’t really about tracing the roots of our contemporary crises. Rather, it is an exploration of the contrast between how the Black middle-class Williams family experienced 1968 and how the White Arnold family of the original, much-beloved version of the “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993) experienced that same turbulent year. In this way, the show draws upon ABC’s long history of airing television shows that embrace “racial inversion,” to portray the Black experience by remaking all-White productions. These shows date to 1970, when executives hoped they would elicit empathy for non-White Americans while attracting a more diverse audience to the network.
Television networks struggled to figure out how to script programs about race during the increased civil unrest of the late 1960s. In 1968, the Kerner Commission condemned media outlets for sensationalizing news reports about Black unrest and political militancy. Media also contributed to racial division, the report argued, by failing to incorporate the everyday experiences of Black people — at work, in school, with family — into the broader television landscape. White audiences could watch hours of television shows and commercials without seeing Black humanity. The occasional “token” Black character might appear, but usually only as a story prop. In addition to the Kerner Report, the Federal Communications Commission and Black activists pressured networks to integrate programming in meaningful ways.
Thanks to this pressure, the 1968 television season featured more Black cast members than ever before, on new shows like “Julia” (1968-1971), “Mod Squad” (1968-1973) and “Room 222” (1968-1974).
Nevertheless, by 1970, television networks found themselves at a crossroads. Black actors and critics publicly decried these efforts to diversify. They argued that, despite the promise of increased Black visibility, networks relied on a distinctly White interpretation of the Black experience. As Diahann Carroll, the star of “Julia,” put it: “I’m a Black woman with a White image.”
Meanwhile, White audiences weren’t exactly keen on these changes, either. White TV viewers pushed back against increased representation of Blackness by writing angry letters to television producers, sponsors and periodicals such as TV Guide. They also changed the channel. The result: Many of the first truly integrated television shows generated low ratings.
Networks could not reverse course and eliminate Black characters, but they needed to find a new way to include diverse experiences.
Enter racial inversion. Rather than portraying a harmoniously integrated society, which critics pointed out was an inauthentic representation of American life anyway, producers experimented with racially inverting TV narratives by placing more realistic Black characters in scenarios and story lines familiar to White audiences.
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