Notes from Underground: WGN’s Black-Cast Quality TV Experiment

By Alfred L. Martin Jr.May 31, 2018

Notes from Underground: WGN’s Black-Cast Quality TV Experiment
ON MARCH 9, 2016, WGN America solidified its foray into quality TV programming with its newest series Underground. Premiering with 1.42 million viewers, Underground became the most watched series premiere in WGN America’s short history as a producer of original programming. For years, WGN was known mostly as a superstation (like TBS) that owned the broadcast rights to the vast majority of Chicago Cubs baseball games, but the shift from being branded as “WGN Superstation” to “WGN America” ushered in a number of programmatic changes discursively employed to signal the “new” WGN. In 2014, when WGN officially became WGN America, it began pursuing original content. But it was not just original content — it was quality television content, conspicuously similar to the kinds of shows with which AMC had found success, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Beginning with period dramas Salem and Manhattan, WGN almost immediately signaled its pursuit of this style of series and its attendant cultural cachet. Jamie Erlicht, one of Sony TV’s presidents of programming and production, put it plainly in a press release: “High-quality original series have consistently helped establish channel brands with the audience. WGN appreciates and takes that value proposition seriously.” Keeping with its focus on period dramas that could concomitantly be understood as quality television, in August 2014, the network announced that it had assembled a writer’s room to develop Underground, a black-cast series about American slavery and the Underground Railroad.

But what is so-called quality TV? In 1996, Robert J. Thompson wrote that quality TV is best defined as programming that is “better, more sophisticated, and more artistic than the usual network [television] fare.” But, in terms of definition, quality TV is hard to pin down because what precisely is “better,” “more sophisticated,” or “more artistic”? On one hand, we know it when we see it. On the other hand, we often do best by defining quality television by what it is not — activating a tug of war between binary oppositions and arbitrary notions of taste. When pushed, quality television often boils down to aesthetics: cinematography, casting, acting, production, and often network/platform. Single-cam series are quality, while three-camera ones are generally not. Quality discourses are activated when an Oscar-winning movie star “slums” it on television, as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon did with Big Little Lies. HBO produces quality series, FOX does not (after all, it’s not TV, it’s HBO). But beyond its form, as Erlicht so candidly admits, “quality television,” is, above all, a “value proposition.”

However, when discussing quality television and its value proposition, one thing is clear: quality television (and its demographic) is white. The quality discourse is rarely affixed to television series with primarily black-casts. To be sure, quality television series are generally understood as dramas. And with few exceptions, including The Wire and Soul Food as well as genre-defying series like Frank’s Place and South Central, primarily black-cast series have almost always been sitcoms, not dramas. However, with the recent influx of black-cast dramatic series like Being Mary Jane, Empire, Queen Sugar, and The Haves and the Have Nots, quality television discourses still elude these series, although networks seem well aware that there is a black “quality” audience, a demographic segment I call BLAMP: black, liberal, affluent, metropolitan professional viewers. Yet, despite the industrial acknowledgment of BLAMPs, black-cast dramas with high production values are not characterized as dramas, but as melodramas or soap operas. Being associated with these modes always already tethers these series to the lower echelons of television.

However, Underground was a rare industrial case wherein a black-cast drama was understood within quality discourses. Certainly, as a trope, one can argue that part of Underground’s appeal to quality discourses is that it features black bodies being ’buked and scorned as so many quality black-led films have done, like 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and The Help. On such a rare occasion, however, quality black-cast television carries a burden of representation. Understood as the binary opposite of black-cast series like Empire and any number of Tyler Perry’s primetime soaps, Underground was tasked with representing the possibilities of quality black-cast television. And so, its cancellation after two seasons, and its failure to find a suitable network to pick up the series, exposes the ways Hollywood logics continue to make specific black failures stand in for all black failures. The cancellation of Underground thus provides an opportunity to examine the precarious position of black quality TV within a 21st-century televisual landscape. How did Underground become such a public test case for black-cast quality TV? And how does its failure show us the way industry logics continually associate blackness with risk?

Because we know quality when we see it, those within the television industry are adept at semiotically linking particular discourses with televisual content. For example, in the press release announcing that John Legend had joined Underground as an executive producer, the headline is explicit about centering Legend as a Grammy and Academy Award winner. Legend had won BET Awards and Billboard Music Awards, too, but it is the specific gesture toward his Grammy and Oscar wins that works to suture his involvement to a level of distinction or quality. It is equally important that while Legend is a black musician, he has achieved crossover success. In this way, his attachment to the series uses his “black cred” as well as his generally universal appeal as a “safe” black musician to center the series’s universality. Additionally, the press release zeroes in on creators/executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski association with quality series Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008–2014) and Daredevil (Netflix, 2015–present). Lest its suturing of quality television discourses with Underground are understood as too subtle, the news release continues by positioning Underground as “WGN America’s latest straight-to-series order since the growing national cable network began its aggressive expansion into high-quality scripted programming last year.” In other words, Underground is not “regular” TV; it is something far “better, more sophisticated, and more artistic” than what is generally featured on television. Before a single frame had been shot, the paratexts around Underground forcefully made a claim to quality discourses.

Upon its premiere, many of the reviews parroted similar discourses. In his review of the pilot, Hank Stuever praised Underground for having “a fast, dirty and necessary sense of life-or-death momentum, which puts it more in the mode of AMC's The Walking Dead.” Additionally, its rating numbers were likened to other so-called quality series, with The Wrap reporting that its premiere “bested the series premieres of Showtime’s Billions by 57 percent, HBO’s Vinyl by 86 percent, and the FX series Baskets by 37 percent.”

For all of its gestures toward quality television aesthetics, and the ways reviews echoed such discourses, Underground was unable to escape an unspoken commonplace of contemporary TV: one black actor on a primarily white-cast series is “diversity,” but the regular presence of several black actors makes it a black show. “Black shows,” from Tyler Perry’s hour-long series to Empire and Being Mary Jane, are rarely included in discussions of quality, and when they get close, they often face another generic obstacle. The New York Times’s Neil Genzlinger, for instance, argues that while Underground “is a slickly executed and expensive-looking piece of television” it ultimately has “a definite soap-opera undercurrent.” The invocation of soap opera is important here because soaps, as Michael Newman and Elana Levine have forcefully argued, are understood within feminized terms. The show certainly owes a structural debt to that genre, but so do Mad Men, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, and any number of other series that easily embody the quality discourse. Invoking the soap opera by name serves only to discredit Underground’s claim to quality. Extending Newman and Levine’s astute observation, I think that by connecting Underground to the soap opera, Genzlinger attempts to not only make the series decidedly not a quality series, but to racialize the series, because black-cast series are rarely, if ever, considered within such discourses. In this way, then, Underground mimicked the look of a quality series, but in its inclusion of moments that Genzlinger reads as melodramatic, it, for him, ceded its claim to quality television.

However, for all of its gestures toward being labeled as a quality series with a black cast, Underground had to engage in universalist discourses that sought to make its story both particular to blackness, yet universal enough so as not to exclude white viewers. In what Katherine Sender calls “dualcasting,” the metric for success meant that the series had to capture white quality viewers as well as BLAMPs. Similar to the ways Tim Havens discusses the miniseries Roots, Underground actively deflected conversations around its blackness, and instead focused on “historical themes and supposedly universalizing family themes.” Many of the series’s interstitials and ads clearly articulated that the series needed (and wanted) white viewers as part of the Underground viewership. For example, AncestryDNA, one of the series’s sponsors, ran an ad that discusses ancestry, but never within the context of blackness or Africanness. By juxtaposing the relative blackness of Underground’s cast with the whiteness of AncestryDNA’s ad, such a move begins to reveal the problematic ways televisual blackness operates. Similar to the ways quality black films like 12 Years a Slave and The Help locate blackness within America’s past to demonstrate that “we have overcome,” Underground’s retelling of a black past was concomitantly bound within a politics of representation that saw networks scurrying to blacken up their lineups in the wake of the surprise success of Empire and the hunt for white quality demographics (white, 18–34-year-olds) that could be sold to advertisers. All this is to say that the series attempted to use its black cast and its story of the horrors of slavery to attract black viewers, then used its engagement with problematic quality discourses to attempt to attract white viewers, for whom advertisers will pay more money.

Screenshots from AncestryDNA ad during “Underground”

However, after the highs of its series premiere, Underground’s ratings began to soften. Season two of Underground averaged a 0.2 rating among adults 18–49 and 567,000 viewers for initial airings, down from 993,000 in season one. In addition, shortly after the close of its second season, the deal for Sinclair Broadcast Group to buy WGN America (along with other Tribune media properties) was closed. Given the racial politics of the 2016 presidential election, coupled with Sinclair’s own conservative bent, many saw the series’s cancellation as endemic of that political return. But to my mind, that is an easy explanation that places the political imaginary ahead of industrial practice. For media owners of all stripes, money is far more important than politics. So why did Underground fail? While I do not want to discount our current political moment, the fact is this: quality television series tend to have less-than-stellar ratings. While subscription-based networks and streaming platforms like HBO, Showtime, and Netflix can trade lower ratings for the distinction of being quality (i.e., not for the masses), ad-supported networks cannot. Underground’s average of 567,000 viewers is low by most metrics, particularly those on ad-supported networks. For a quality television show, Underground’s share of “quality demographics” were not high enough to demonstrate value for advertisers.

It is important to remember that television works on a deficit-financing model. And because of that model, Underground’s reported $5-million-per-episode budget made it too costly to produce for the ratings payoff. While some viewers, like Twitter user Cheeks, suggested that WGN America courted black viewers only to dump them once the network had reached large enough viewership among “quality demographics” to sell them to advertisers, that, too, does not quite understand the economics of television production. And if its cancellation were political rather than economic, the fan-led, and John Legend–encouraged, campaign for black-focused networks like OWN and BET, and streaming platforms like Hulu to pick up the show, would have been successful. But ultimately, these networks and platforms passed, with Oprah Winfrey saying, “I can’t afford Underground. It costs twice as much to make [as Queen Sugar].” To be sure, Queen Sugar was initially understood as “quality TV” likely because of its connection to Ava DuVernay, but Winfrey’s rejection of Underground for her fledging network points to the economics of producing black quality TV. Because blackness within television discourse has most often been produced within the three-camera, live-studio audience model of sitcom production, producing televisual blackness has often been considered cheap. And even as television begins to produce dramatic black series, that price tag remains relatively low.

With the emergence and recognition of the BLAMP demographic, shows like Underground were designed to capture their “upscale” interests, unlike “ratchet” fare like Love & Hip Hop, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and the Tyler Perry oeuvre. But matching the tastes of an “upscale” black audience with “upscale” fare costs. Underground’s failure ultimately reified that quality blackness cannot be understood as particular but has to be universalized in order to capture a critical mass of white quality viewers as well. In its failure, television has largely left its experiment with black quality dramas behind in lieu of racially integrated fare like Shonda Rhimes’s output. Much like Hollywood in the wake of the Blaxploitation cycle, blackness in television drama is understood as unable to stand on its own, reifying that while quality television is expensive to produce, black quality is an expense on which few networks are willing to take a chance, not even as a co-production. As such, Underground’s failure becomes a case study for the failure of black drama writ large. The fact is that when black-cast dramas fail, the industry extrapolates that particular failure to include not just the singular black failure, but all black failure. In this way, then, Underground, and its inability to find a suitable home points to the unmarketability of black-cast dramas. Because of its daring to be discursively included in the quality television conversation, Underground’s blackness was remapped onto itself and used to signal its failure. In this way, engaging in black-cast dramas is a precarious endeavor. A success risks having its blackness downplayed in the interest of universalist discourses, while its failure is attributed to its blackness, which is then propped up as a reason to never go down this road again.


Alfred L. Martin Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at University of Iowa.

LARB Contributor

Alfred L. Martin Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at University of Iowa. Martin’s research focuses on race, sexuality, and media industries. Martin is currently completing work on his book The Queer Politics of Black-Cast Sitcoms which will be published in late 2019/early 2020 by Indiana University Press. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!