On May 9, 1961, former FCC Chairperson Newton Minow gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, in which he lambasted television broadcasters for failing to produce programming that was in line with the needs of the public interest. In the historic speech, he referred to the television landscape as a “vast wasteland” and called on broadcasters to raise the bar in programming.
Minow’s comments were simultaneously received with excitement and rejection — excitement for having the guts to say what many were thinking about the “low” quality of television programming, and rejection because his comments were perceived as elitist and meddlesome. Whatever the case, Minow threw down a gauntlet, which many in television have been trying to match over the last 60 years of television. Minow’s critique is often echoed in contemporary criticism.
Contrary to critiques about the television landscape, TV One’s Unsung and Find Our Missing are two shows that are serving the public interest. Both shows are well-produced and offer insight into the cultural landscape of black America in the areas of entertainment and crime.
Unsung, which premiered In 2008, explores the lives of entertainers who were once at the top of their game but whose lives came undone because of personal struggle or professional strife. The NAACP Image Award-winning show has featured artists like Minnie Riperton, Teena Marie, Teddy Pendergrass, Big Daddy Kane, Klymaxx, Atlantic Starr, DeBarge, Bobby Womack, the Sylvers, Stacy Lattisaw, Florence Ballard and Tammi Terrell. It takes viewers behind the scenes of the lives of musicians who mean something to the black community — whether they crossed over musically or lived primarily in the musical collections of black America.
Unsung’s recent profile of beloved R&B songstress Vesta Williams demonstrates the importance of the show to the black community. Producers were working on the profile before the singer’s untimely death, so they understood her important place in music history and the black musical landscape before her widely reported death.
The episode featured intimate behind-the-scenes interviews with Williams and those who were important to her. The poignancy of Williams talking about wanting to live to be old and sing like Ella Fitzgerald evokes the same level of intimacy espoused by Minnie Riperton’s husband, Richard Rudolph, who spoke of what her death meant to music and his life. Unsung allows viewers to connect with artists who matter to our community but may not resonate with mainstream America in the same way.
Find Our Missing is another show that is important within the media landscape. Scholars and commentators have lamented the lack of media attention given to missing black people, specifically women. Names like Phylicia Barnes, Nikki McPhatter, Mitrice Richardson or Stacey English would be largely unknown if not for black writers and outlets bringing their stories to the forefront.
TV One has created a show that gives the proper attention to missing black people. Producers have enlisted Emmy, NAACP Image and Golden Globe Award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson to host the show. Tying the kind of cultural capital that Merkerson exercises in Hollywood to Find Our Missing adds legitimacy to the program. Merkerson’s work on Law & Order also doesn’t hurt the show, which clearly wants viewers to understand that missing black people are important and that the lack of coverage is indeed criminal in some respects.
While the television landscape continues to expand in response to emerging technologies, the need for programming that serves the public interest is more important than ever. It is exciting that TV One is using its platform to promote and highlight celebrities and civilians in a way that underscores the importance of black people’s lives and the fact that their stories should be told.
In the case of Unsung, TV One’s courageous willingness to highlight celebrities who would not even register as a blip on Hollywood’s mainstream radar sends a message that the black community can and will decide who is important, even within the pop-cultural landscape. The fact that there is an outlet for our stories to be told — some positive, some negative — is groundbreaking and necessary. This approach to programming is what will keep television in general and black television specifically from becoming a “vast wasteland.”
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.