Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Review: The Ten Most Influential Black TV Personalities of All Time (as of March 2008)

Black History Month is officially in February. But for about 10% of the US population, every month is Black History Month. So now’s a good a time as any to have a look at 10 African-Americans who have had the biggest impact on the most powerful communication tool ever invented, television.

In presenting this list, I do not mean to suggest that everyone on it should necessarily be admired or respected. I think that these are people who have, more than others, left their mark on the medium, for better or worse.

10. Creflo A. Dollar: Creflo Dollar represents the continuing presence and evolution of the black preacher from the church pulpit to the radio to the TV screen. Unlike the fire and brimstone usually associated with black ministers, this current group of holy men is just as likely to advocate a Prosperity Theology that has become popular with preachers of all races like Joel Osteen.

Check out any of the local access channels in a large city and you will come across someone like Dollar preaching salvation, financial success, and personal and political change.


9. Eddie Murphy: He’s one of the greatest performers to come out of the Saturday Night Live comedy factory. But Murphy also raised the bar for that small subset of funny-people who cross over from TV to movies. It’s now taken as a given that if a comic gets popular with his or her TV show, it’s only a matter of time before the film projects come along. At a time when movies were just entering the era of the hundred-million-dollar blockbuster, producers wanted an instantly recognizable persona who crossed both mediums. They found that person in Murphy. Other funny people had already begun to make the leap from TV to films, but when Murphy parlayed his successes on SNL into big-time films like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, he set the standard for 1980s comedic success.

8. Keenen Ivory Wayans: With his series “In Living Color,” Wayans (along with his brothers Damon, Shawn, Marlon, and Dwayne) brought “urban” (aka “black”) sketch comedy to mainstream American TV while also being the main creative force behind it. The material could be rough around the edges, but the show was enormously influential in making humor by black people for black people (and anyone else who cared to watch) a regular part of the regular TV lineup.

Wayan's show also helped start the careers of household names like Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez. Dave Chapelle’s brilliant but short-lived show is a direct descendent of what the Wayans started years ago.

7. LeVar Burton: On television, an intelligent black man is usually portrayed as an over-the-top nerd (Roger 'Raj' Thomas on "What’s Happening!!", Dwayne Wayne from "A Different World," Steve Urkel from "Family Matters") or a brooding, sullen jackass (Dr. Peter Benton from "ER"). Over his decades-long career, LeVar Burton has played smart characters who don’t wear their intellect like a clown suit or a ball and chain.

By starring in three landmark productions ("Roots," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and "Reading Rainbow"), Burton also proved a black man did not necessarily have to be or portray a criminal, comic, sage, athlete, or rapper to achieve long-term success on TV.

6. Robert L. Johnson: By founding Black Entertainment Television in 1980, Johnson showed that a TV network targeted specifically to black audiences could succeed over the long term. However, by forgoing innovation and quality in favor of “cost-effective” production values and syndication deals for less-than-legendary programming, I don’t think he ever achieved the potential of the enterprise while he ran it. However, there is demand for black-centered programming, and with a new leader at the helm the channel continues to move forward.

5. O.J. Simpson: Television viewers under the age of 35 might not fully appreciate that before the White Bronco Chase Simpson was already legendary, a prime example of black upward mobility, praised for his pro football accomplishments and media charisma that lead to success in sports broadcasting and movies.

Combine a brutal double-homicide with the 24-hour news cycle, and “The Juice” became even more famous for entirely different reasons. At best he became a catalyst for honest and public discussions of race in America. At worst he perpetuated the age-old stereotype of the black man as violent criminal, no matter how rich of famous he becomes.

4. Michael Jackson: There was a time when MTV, a network that would briefly be the cutting-edge showcase for music in the U.S., would not play black artists. Already an accomplished singer with his brothers in The Jackson Five, Michael broke the MTV color barrier while producing two of the greatest pop albums of all time (Off the Wall and Thriller) and becoming a worldwide superstar through his innovative music videos.

Like Simpson, Jackson’s downward spiral has been severe, unusual, and very public. He was a perfect candidate to feed the vanguard of the new wave of corporate tabloid journalism, providing plenty of content for paparazzi and the producers of A Current Affair, Entertainment Tonight, and other tabloid shows. Through televised accounts of his bizarre personal life, Jackson showed the effects fame, success, and excess can have on a fragile personality raised under the spotlight.

3. Michael Jordan: From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, the National Basketball Association was THE professional sports league in America. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird laid the groundwork for the NBA’s success, but Jordan took it to the stratosphere in a way no athlete had ever done before or has since, raking in millions of dollars in endorsement deals in the process.

Jordan was the perfect TV athlete in that when he was on the screen, people who did not normally follow his sport would tune in to watch him play, a status currently held only by Tiger Woods. Jordan’s genius on the court transformed him from an athlete to an icon to a concept, used as a metaphor for success in sports, business, and life. It didn’t hurt that he had a perfect cast of foils and co-stars against which he could play out the drama (the surly Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, the zen coach Phil Jackson, the wannabee top dogs like Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller and on and on). Even today the single word “air” represents a level of greatness that only a few can reach.

2. Bill Cosby: "I Spy," "The Cosby Kids," and "The Cosby Show" established him as an educated, witty, articulate black man who could command attention and respect from everyone. Cosby established his reputation during a critical time in American history when the old images of blacks as second-class citizens were still very much alive. It’s hard to overstate the influence Cosby’s characters and shows had in showing the rest of the country that there was a black middle class that had American dreams just like anyone else.

Lately Cosby has been controversial to some due to his comments about the need for African-Americans to take more personal responsibility for their actions and to stop blaming others for their problems. Others, though, have praised him for not being afraid to criticize the black community for its own shortcomings. Either way, it’s not unusual to see him at the forefront of societal change.

1. Oprah Winfrey: She is one of the most powerful individuals in all media today. She took the generations-old stereotype of the subservient, nurturing black woman and turned it on its head, making billions in the process. It’s almost an insult to call her syndicated program, a unique combination of chatty gossip, aspirational spirituality, and girls-club fellowship, a “talk show,” since the term doesn’t begin to describe its influence or the loyalty of her fan base. And she owns it all.

Winfrey has been able to successfully parlay her TV fame into movie production, publishing, and multi-million dollar charity projects. Her endorsement might just have had an impact on Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential victory.

There are a lot of Oprah haters out there, their clucking tongues made even louder with the benefit of the 24-hour TV news cycle and ubiquity and anonymity of the Internet. None of it seems to matter, though. Like it or not, it’s very much Oprah’s world and we’re just living in it.

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