Considering Race In Retro Television Reception

Curator's Note

In the early 1990s, cable channel Nick at Nite ran a series of promotional advertisements sardonically proclaiming that they were doing the important work of preserving “our television heritage”. While tongue-in-cheek, Nick at Nite’s declaration raises the question, just whose television heritage were they preserving? Within television studies most discussions of television heritage center around television’s role in nation-building projects. Mapping a particularly American television heritage, Kompare (2005) describes it “as a base of legitimacy for television, a mechanism for locating television—series, genres, stars, policies, stations, logos, advertisements, or viewing experiences—in American history and memory, i.e. as something worthy of attention, preservation and tribute” (p. 102). Building on Kompare, Gray (2008) observes that television heritage serves as “a nostalgic record of the nation, and our place in it, in which television figures prominently, so that for instance, I Love Lucy has become as endemic of the 1950s, Miami Vice of the 1980s and Beverly Hills 90210 of the 1990s as anything from outside television” (p. 41). However, the contents of this heritage and thus who is able to find themselves in it, deserves examination.

Writing about the absence of Black popular culture references in Ernest Cline’s 1980s nostalgia novel Ready Player One, as well as its 2018 film adaptation, Joyner (2018) questions how one is able to pine for a 1980s sans Black people:

How do you talk about the ‘80s for 372 pages (142 on-screen minutes) and not once mention Michael Jackson? A man who was ubiquitous throughout the ‘80s and 90s. Or hip-hop? 1982 was the year hip-hop took hold in pop culture. If you talk about the ‘80s and don’t mention Slick Rick, LL Cool J, De La Soul, or even The Beastie Boys then what are you even doing with your life? (para. 5)

Such erasures marginalize the cultural experiences and tastes of Black audiences, while minimizing the contributions of Black cultural producers to shaping the era’s tenor. Thus, the question remains, whose heritage is being preserved? In an August 2016 interview with the New York City morning radio show, The Breakfast Club, rapper Joey BadA$$ discussed his role as a Seinfeld-obsessed hacker on the USA network drama, Mr. Robot. When asked if he shared his character’s Seinfeld fandom, BadA$$ replied, “Being a young Black kid growing up that just wasn't my sitcom of choice...We was [sic] too busy watching Cosby Show, Martin, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. Instead of Beverly Hills 902010, Black television audiences may invoke shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, and Moesha when thinking of television shows that define the 1990s. In the twenty-years since its series finale, Martin has remained particularly popular among Black television viewers and has been consistently cited throughout hip-hop culture. In September 2017, VH1 celebrated the show as part of its Hip Hop Honors: 90s Game-Changers. In a video tribute to the show, hip-hop luminaries reflected on Martin’s legacy and in doing so, positioned the show as an important cultural artifact from the 1990s. Interrogating the construction of television heritage requires engaging not only what is remembered but who is doing the remembering.

Gray, J. (2008). Television entertainment. New York: Routledge.

Joyner, J. (n.d.). Why “Ready Player One” and its erasure of Black culture is harmful. Retrieved August 31, 2018, from

Kompare, D. (2005). Rerun nation: how repeats invented American television. New York: Routledge.

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