- Black Television Travels: African American Media around the Globe by Timothy Havens
As a television studies professor, I spend a good deal of my time in the classroom discussing how television programming, in general, and Black-oriented television, in particular, reflects and refracts attitudes in American popular consciousness. Given that such discussions often focus on domestic consumption of these cultural products, questions regarding how and/or whether these programs travel well open up new ways of thinking about both the meaning and the marketability of televisual representations of Blackness beyond US borders. Timothy Havens’s meticulously well-researched and thoughtful study Black Television Travels provides an expansive perspective on the movement of African American programming and the media industry’s conventional wisdom that affects the feasibility of its journey.
While the significance of Black programming on the televisual landscape has been explored from a variety of perspectives—from Herman Gray’s seminal work Watching Race, which examines televisual [End Page 168] iterations of Blackness in the post-network era, to Beretta Smith-Shomade’s Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, which chronicles the programming and industrial histories of Black Entertainment Television—the uniqueness of Black Television Travels can be found in the ways it brings together multiple methodologies and perspectives.1 Two central directives drive the book: to (re)view the history of the paths African American programming has taken into the international media marketplace as a means of counteracting industrial mythologies about the bankability of televisualized Blackness and to understand the impact of globalizing media industries on the politics of representation in African American television. By framing the analyses around “the moment of broadcast abroad, the moment of program exchange and the moment of program production,” Havens maps the complicated and contested movement of televisual representations of Blackness, shaped and vetted by the quasi-anecdotal logic of industrial lore (the institutionalized discourse within the television industry).2 In turn, Havens illustrates how these selected notions of Blackness encoded in television programs are carried from one location to another—describing how discourses of Blackness are decoded and recoded in different national and temporal contexts.
The book is a career-long passion project for Havens, who has written extensively on Black television’s movement into international markets. The result deftly utilizes different methodological and theoretical paradigms to examine industry lore’s interrelations with the cultural, industrial, and sociohistorical moments in which the wide expanse of Black television programming and generic conventions are produced, as well as the racialized expectations therein. Havens cautions us to think of industry lore not as monolithic, but rather as contested discourse in which fiscally motivated decisions serve to mold how viewers worldwide understand Blackness and to determine the marketability of Black representation both at home and abroad. Havens interrogates the impact of the television industry’s conventional wisdom on programming and marketing strategies worldwide and the evolution and intransigence in the creation and distribution of Black televisual representation. The study moves across decades and across genres, using programming examples as chronologically and stylistically varied as Roots (ABC, 1977), Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, 2005–), and The Boondocks (Cartoon Network, 2005–). This cross-decade and cross-genre approach—along with methodological diversity in the analyses of individual programs, international markets, and specific national contexts—provides the kind of holistic view of the movement of Black programming in the globalizing media marketplace that is extremely useful for scholars and students of media and industries studies.
The first chapter on Roots provides a historical overview of the international marketing and reception of the landmark miniseries. Havens explores how, from its inception, Wolper (and ABC) viewed the miniseries with “trepidation and high hopes” [End Page 169] regarding the cost and the content.3 Partly because the program was produced at a culturally dynamic moment in terms of race relations, when the civil rights–era ethos had given way to varying notions of Black Power, the transformation of Alex Haley’s best seller, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, to the David Wolper...