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Guest Commentary: Here’s to Spike

Jul 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The recent New York Supreme Court decision to enjoin TNN: The National Network from going forward with its heralded relaunch as Spike TV surprised a lot of folks-including me, but in a good way. I was elated and consider the incident a turning point in media history and television network politics. It’s about time the impact and influence of African American culture got its props.
I’ve seen the TV commercial for one of those fancy-label alcohol drinks set at an outdoor concert, where the hip-hop band is all white and there isn’t a single person of color in the audience. And I’ve tuned in to an episode of “Da Ali G Show,” about a white British guy who speaks, acts and dresses like a black American gangsta rapper. And I watched “Friends”’ David Schwimmer on “Dateline” talking about his longtime campaign to finally get a black semi-regular cast member on the series. So I salute Spike Lee and his court action; I hope it has a far-reaching effect.
I suspect many people perceive as hubris that Mr. Lee, often described as “edgy,” “controversial” and “the angriest black man in America,” would think himself influential enough to have had an impact, subconsciously or otherwise, on the TNN executives’ decision to take “Spike” as a name. But there are many more examples than the ones I listed of how television networks are daily exploiting African American images, culture and history.
It seems the television industry finds it a galling imposition that African American and other minority writers, actors and directors are not willing to merely offer up their cultures as inspiration for white television and advertising executives but are demanding full participation in the creation, development and production of more programming reflecting our nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
But instead of sharing the unlimited potential television wealth and the limited number of prime-time hours, the networks continue to make the safer status-quo-preserving choice to import an “Ali G,” a pale-in-more-ways-than-one imitation of the real thing, or to replace, putatively, the outgoing “Friends” with the as-lily-white “Coupling,” whose cast, if NBC’s promos for this fall 2003 entry are any indication, doesn’t have one single minority member.
The networks need to get with the programming. If the Oxford English Dictionary can include the hip-hop term “bling-bling” in its listings and the venerable Smithsonian magazine can write in a July issue headline that New York’s early 20th century egg-and-butter men were “living extra large,” then surely the captains of industry in television, this most powerful medium, can make room for the people from whose culture they have appropriated so much of their look, sound and sensibility.
Lillian A. Jackson, a writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles, is a copy editor for TelevisionWeek.