Monday, September 21, 2009

(empo-tymshft) The dangers of future extrapolation

I can just see the pitchman now.

This product is going to be a winner! As you know the product has already been very successful in one market for over twenty years. We believe that this success in the product's current market can be extended to the new, exciting market that is opening up. And what's more, the new version of the product will benefit from all natural ingredients, unlike the old product which used artificial ingredients!

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But what if the original product was the Amos 'N Andy radio show, which had been very successful since its debut in 1928, and the new product was the proposed Amos 'N Andy TV show, introduced in 1951 with an all black cast (the radio show's stars were actually white)?

Why did the TV show go off the air after two years? Because of a change in the audience since 1928. The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes what happened in the intervening years:

The program's portrayal of black life and culture was deemed by the black community of the period as an insulting return to the days of blackface and minstrelsy. Eventually, the controversy surrounding the television version of Amos 'n Andy would almost equal that of the popularity of the radio version....

Media historian Donald Bogel notes "Neither CBS nor the programs' creators were prepared for the change in national temperament after the Second World War ... Within black America, a new political consciousness and a new awareness of the importance of image had emerged."...

Post World War II African-Americans looked upon the new medium of television with hopeful excitement. To them, the medium could nullify the decades of offensive caricatures and ethnic stereotyping so prevalent throughout decades of motion picture history. The frequent appearance of black stars on early television variety shows was met with approval from black leadership.

This was the atmosphere into which the Amos 'N Andy television show was introduced.

The NAACP, bolstered by its 1951 summer convention, mandated an official protest of the program. The organization outlined a list of specific items it felt were objectionable, for example, how "every character is either a clown or a crook," "Negro doctors are shown as quacks," and "Negro lawyers are shown as crooks." As the series appeared in June 1951, the NAACP appeared in federal court seeking an injunction against its premiere.

So, in the end, a product that had been very successful on radio in the 1930s was very unsuccessful on television in the 1950s. While the elapsing of time was certainly a factor - America under Truman was different than America under Hoover - another aspect may have been the medium itself. Remember that in radio, the technology allowed white people to play the roles. Perhaps the sight of black people doing these things on television was just too much for many people.
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