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Timothy Havens, Communication Studies/African American Studies

  Tim Havens
Timothy Havens, professor of communication studies and African American studies. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Many college students love to watch TV. But when Timothy Havens was in graduate school, he wanted to conduct research about TV, with a particular focus on race. A professor suggested Havens write a paper about the international trade in African American programs, and he was hooked.

Havens, now a professor of communication studies and African American studies at The University of Iowa, discovered that African American programming was preferred to white programs in parts of the world. “It only makes sense: the historical experiences and cultural adaptations that African Americans faced in the United States are not dissimilar at all of the kinds of experiences lots of nonwhite people faced during colonialism, and continue to face,” he says.

Havens, who is writing a book called Black Television Travels: Race, Globalization, and the Media, talks with fyi about the television industry’s perceptions of what audiences want, how white family–based programs benefited from The Cosby Show’s international success, and his earliest memories in front of the tube.

What was the great attraction to a career in television research?

What I took away from my graduate school experience, more than anything, was the understanding that American television distributors can’t just sell whatever programs they want wherever they want to. Instead, cultural differences and similarities act like dams that channel the flow of culturally traded products, like TV shows. This way of looking at the television trade—that it isn’t huge corporations that determine the contents and directions of cultural trade, but rather culture—seems to me to fly in the face of conventional assumptions. And I tend to like arguments that fly in the face of expectations.

Describe your current research work.

My current project tries to debunk the myths of the television industry regarding the international appeal of African American programs, while simultaneously trying to understand what created and continues to sustain those myths. To get even more precise: I look at what I call “industry lore” or prevalent perceptions among industry insiders about what audiences want, what they will and won’t accept on TV, and how those ideas are shaped by the institutional and industrial processes, especially abroad.

One example: today, there are very few television dramas with African American lead characters; those few that exist are mostly on subscription channels. One of the big reasons for this absence is that network television dramas generate a large percentage of their revenues from foreign sales, especially in the first few years a show is on the air. Basically, perceptions about what international buyers will and won’t accept have a huge impact on the kinds of TV dramas that are produced. With African American–led dramas, there’s a widespread industry perception that foreign buyers aren’t interested, and because of this perception, very few get made.

How far back do these perceptions go?

You see very similar industry lore regarding all kinds of African American shows since the 1960s. The book I’m working on traces the roots of this industry lore. I’m especially interested in debunking the perception that black shows don’t “travel” by showing how, in fact, they’ve been at the forefront of several popular trends in international television.

Beginning with the miniseries Roots in 1977, and continuing through The Cosby Show in the late 1980s and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the 1990s, a number of African American shows were not only successful abroad, they actually broke new ground. Before The Cosby Show, for instance, industry lore held that comedy couldn’t travel abroad; after the show became a global hit, industry insiders realized that comedy could sell, and industry lore attributed the show’s success to its strong family themes.

Similar things accompanied the international popularity of Roots and Fresh Prince as well as more recent programs like Chappelle’s Show. Industry lore continued to hold that black shows can’t travel, and these shows were seen as successful despite the fact that they were steeped in African American cultures, experiences, and histories.

Ironically, white family sitcoms were the main beneficiaries internationally of the revised industry lore, as sales in white family sitcoms spiked after The Cosby Show’s success. In fact, this is a pattern that repeats itself several times: the global popularity of Roots led to a slew of white historical miniseries getting traded abroad.

Didn’t The Cosby Show cause uproar in America because of perceived lack of authenticity?

This is an interesting case. Actually, it was mostly white folks who thought the show was inauthentic, and a lot of African Americans found it important to defend the show’s accuracy. This comes down to, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between culture and TV. Culture isn’t something that preexists its appearance on TV; today, it’s impossible to draw the line between where “television” stops and “authentic” culture begins. So, in many ways, television is as authentic as any other form of culture—or as inauthentic.

What most people reacted to in The Cosby Show was the fact that it told the story of an upper middle-class African American family, which was not something most Americans were accustomed to seeing, especially on TV. At the same time, in the 1980s when the show was popular, it’s also true that very few African Americans lived the kind of lifestyle that the Huxtables did, and there are people who argue that the perception that African Americans didn’t face systemic racism, bolstered by The Cosby Show, was important in trying to end affirmative action policies at the time.

What is the desired impact of your research?

A lot of good work has been done, particularly over the past 20 years, on the relationship between cultural practices and racial identities and discourses. But, in the present era, those cultural practices are increasingly processed through global institutions, the TV industry being the most prominent. So, if we are to understand racial identity today, I want to argue, we need to understand in a much clearer way the relationship between industrial and cultural practices.

What are your earliest memories of television?

Television for me was always a family activity. I remember watching Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and Love Boat and Fantasy Island with my younger sister on Friday and Saturday nights and acting out scenes when my parents were out. But one of my earliest memories is sneaking halfway down the stairs one night when I was supposed to be asleep and watching my parents watch Jesus Christ, Superstar on TV.

Why did you come to The University of Iowa?

Its reputation in the field of media studies is one of the best in the country, and I had gotten to a place in my scholarship where I thought that I could have an impact in television studies. A top-five program like Iowa’s would help me have that impact.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Every job has grunt-work—the kind of thing that’s just mind-numbing and unpleasant. But in academia, there’s very little of that. I don’t consider much of what I do to be “work.”

by Christopher Clair

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