September 16, 2008

The city never sleeps, you've gotta live to your own beat, so, easy come and easy go, what is home?

Audience segmentation , narrowcasting, niche programing and the emergence of cable and niche networks on cable are some of the more important trends in television in the last twenty years or so. These trends are in one way or another how we got everything from Cagney and Lacey to BET to The Sopranos. One more example is the ABC Family network and the show Lincoln Heights. The network that ultimately became ABC Family was founded by Pat Robertson as the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN), it later became The Family Channel and when it was sold to Fox and became the Fox Family Channel it was sold with the stipulation that “family” always remain in the network title. In 2001, the network was sold to Disney and became ABC Family. ABC/Disney wanted to change the name of network and turn it into a network for teenagers in college students... instead in 2007 they became ABC family: a new find of family.
Thus we have the context of the niche networks that began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s with channels like MTV and Lifetime. Additionally we have the more recent context of original programming from cable outlets. HBO is obviously a forerunner in fictional programming, as are some of the dramas on TNT and comedies on TBS. ABC Family, too, has a series of offerings. One of these is Lincoln Heights.
Lincoln Heights is the story of a middle class black family who live in a prosperous area of a Los Angeles but in a house that’s too small. The father is a police officer who grew up in the ghetto of Lincoln Heights and the mother is a nurse. The father’s solution to the family’s space problems is a 4 bedroom former crack den in the neighborhood where he grew up. I’ve only seen the first episode and then two from the middle of the second season, but one theme which the show explores that is particularly interesting is, predictably “family.” However what is less predictable is the way in which the obvious, the superficial, reveals something more genuine. The oldest daughter’s sometime boyfriend is Charles. In one scene, we see Charles’s mother who has just come home from cheating casinos and counting cards in Vegas. She is pleading for them to move to Boston with Charles’ stepfather who has attempted to molest and beat Charles. She is pleading for them to be a family again and in the corner of the screen is the ever present abc family. In the ads for the show and its upcoming season, the mother explains that the family is the community, the whole neighborhood. These themes, these definitions of family play out repeatedly throughout each episode with multiple, competing concepts of family being negotiated in context of a black/latino/poor white/panethnic community.
Although it lacks the visual violence, the profanity, the harsh reality of an HBO drama, it still finds ways to challenge dominant values. The community here is not just a bigger family with a conventional mother and wage earning father. It is collective action and consciousness raising. It is groups of women coming together to support one another and each other’s children. Another interesting question to address is the issue of race. On the one hand, there are more representations of minorities, particularly black... but what kind of system do they operate in? Is it still one of institutional racism whereby the government offers no aid to blacks and thus the message of the show is that they must help themselves? Or is there another more progressive message that can be read into the text?

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