It began with a simple question: Why isn’t The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on Netflix? It’s the kind of show that should be streaming, a perfect capsule of nostalgia (those kaleidoscopic outfits) and contemporary relevance (superstar Will Smith still trots out the theme song from time to time). Like so many ’90s TV artifacts, the show would be an able companion for hungover Saturday mornings or housecleaning afternoons. If nothing else, it would allow everyone to finally craft the definitive argument in favor of the first Aunt Viv.
But you can’t stream Fresh Prince on Netflix. Or Hulu. Or Amazon Prime Instant Video. Or any legal subscription service, for that matter. (It’s available on Netflix internationally, but not stateside.) You also can’t stream Martin, or Family Matters, or Sister, Sister, or The Steve Harvey Show, or Moesha. The period of 1990 to 2000, the so-called golden era for black representation on television, saw 17 scripted shows that had predominantly black casts and ended up producing at least 100 episodes, the typical amount needed to make syndication. Just three of them are available on the major streaming services: A Different World on Netflix, and In Living Color and The Cosby Show on Hulu.
Many long-running shows from that sitcom-saturated decade are nowhere to be seen on streaming platforms, but eight of the 20 most popular scripted programs from 1990 to 2000 with mostly white casts are available to stream. And plenty of other shows from that period have been dusted off to appeal to specific audiences: teenage ensembles (Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, That ’70s Show, Dawson’s Creek), cult classics (Freaks and Geeks, Twin Peaks), and nostalgic reboots (Fuller House, Girl Meets World, and soon, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life).
With the success of modern network hits like Empire and Black-ish, viewers have proved (again) that offering programming led by black casts can attract large audiences. But the black IPs that supported that fact the first time around in the ’90s now largely lie dormant.
I tried to ask Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon why this was the case, but all three failed to respond to my interview requests. However, by studying how old sitcoms generate money, and the fast-changing way that streaming services do, I began to understand why Fresh Prince isn’t yet in my Netflix queue — and why its chances of ever showing up may only be getting slimmer.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted on NBC in 1990, six years after The Cosby Show definitively proved the commercial viability of black programming on broadcast television. The show, whose fish-out-of-water premise has been rapped the world over, largely revolved around the same types of contrived sitcom high jinks that have defined the genre for decades. But many of its most iconic moments are culled from the black experience; think Will belting “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to Uncle Phil in the living room or Carlton being racially profiled by the police. “I don’t think you’d ever seen a wealthy African-American family on television until Fresh Prince, and you definitely hadn’t seen a kid from the hip-hop generation until Fresh Prince,” executive producer Quincy Jones told Time in 2015.
The show was a minor success when it debuted, winning its time slot against MacGyver and an ill-advised TV adaptation of Uncle Buck (though it wasn’t easily won, and the show struggled against the competition). By its third season, Fresh Prince was America’s most popular show with an all-black cast, cracking the Nielsen top 20 for the first time (it was also the second-most-popular show among teenagers for its time slot). In 1992 the show’s producers, NBC Productions and Quincy Jones Entertainment, enlisted Warner Bros. to begin shopping around for a lucrative syndication deal, pitching the show’s appeal to viewers ages 12 to 34. Because sitcoms are only 30 minutes long and can be watched out of order, popular ones are highly sought after by local television stations and cable networks that need to fill hours of air time. The most successful shows can live on for decades in reruns, accruing increased cultural capital as they’re exposed to younger generations. “Syndication means your ex-wife knows the check will be coming regularly,” Joseph Marcell, who played butler Geoffrey, told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “It means you can be dead, buried, and forgotten and the checks keep on coming.”
Fresh Prince began airing reruns in 1994 between 5 and 8 p.m. on local stations, earning a reported $650,000 per episode. (The top sitcoms of the period, like Seinfeld, Friends, and Home Improvement, sold for millions per episode.) Station executives believed the show would perform fairly well for two seasons then fade into obscurity, according to Variety. But Fresh Prince actually premiered to the highest ratings of any syndicated network show that fall, beating out The Simpsons and Beverly Hills, 90210.
The show became a fixture of the after-work, pre-prime-time hours and was sought after for its attraction to teens and young adults. It was picked up by TBS in a $22 million deal in 1995. In 2004, the show made the leap to Nick at Nite, and the network cited Fresh Prince as a reason it achieved record ratings two years later, becoming the no. 1 basic cable network for adults 18–34.
Today Fresh Prince remains a cable mainstay, now airing on VH1 and BET in addition to Nick at Nite. Episodes of the show can still regularly attract more than 1 million viewers, even when it airs after midnight. The only ’90s show on cable that consistently performs better among 18-to-49-year-olds is Friends.
“When you look at Fresh Prince with all the airings that they’re doing, I’m sure it’s still a very lucrative business for them,” says Werner Walian, a producer for the show. “I’ve got lots of friends in this business who get residuals and worked on a lot of different shows and aren’t receiving the kind of checks that a show like Fresh Prince is sending out.”
The show is undeniably a valuable property — but how valuable is it to a streaming service? On the upper bounds of the sitcom monetization scale are Seinfeld and Friends, which are reportedly making $700,000 and $500,000 per episode from Hulu and Netflix, respectively. On the lower bounds are the less resilient sitcoms that are often sold to streaming services by production studios in bundles, according to industry analysts. For example, A Different World and 3rd Rock From the Sun, both NBC sitcoms produced by the Carsey-Werner Company, arrived on Netflix the same day in March 2015, indicating they may have been a package deal. Fresh Prince, a modest hit in its initial NBC broadcast that has simply refused to die on cable, may reside in a stubborn middle ground between cultural phenomenons and past-their-prime relics, which makes a deal tricky to negotiate.
The show’s ties to Warner Bros. may also be the reason it’s not available to stream. Eight of those 17 long-running black ’90s shows were produced or distributed by Warner Bros., and none of them are streaming. Perhaps the production powerhouse thinks traditional television is where black shows will perform best, or fears streaming would hurt ratings on TV. In 2013, Warners inked a deal to air reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Wayans Bros. on BET. “These deals are negotiated by the distributors,” says John Bowman, a cocreator of Martin. “In my experience, they don’t leave much money on the table … I would guess that the deals are contingent on no streaming. That being said, Hollywood has consistently undervalued ’90s black sitcoms.”
But Netflix is spending $6 billion on programming in 2016 — if it wanted Fresh Prince, or any other ’90s property, it could eventually have it. Friends is a Warner Bros. property that’s now on Netflix but still airs reruns on cable. So is Gilmore Girls. For some reason it’s the old black shows that don’t fit into Netflix’s strategic vision — nor, apparently, the visions of rivals Hulu and Amazon.
“I don’t think there is some overall, purposeful, ‘We’re not gonna stream these shows,’” says Kim Bass, a television producer who cocreated Sister, Sister and Kenan & Kel. “I think that everything gets monetized in a way that the execs at the various entities think will generate the most revenue. Ultimately, it’s a business, right?”
On FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the jurors are presented with a monumental choice that would go on to define racial politics in America for a generation: Seinfeld or Martin? After some bickering that includes the requisite “What do you mean, you people?” and “I’m not racist, I’m part Indian!” the majority-black group votes along racial lines. Their reactions to watching Martin might as well be a preview of this famous photograph.
This is a microcosm of the racial dynamics at play in the trial, but disparate viewing habits between black and white television audiences were a macro trend all their own in the 1990s. During the 1994–95 television season, when the O.J. trial began, Martin was the third-most-popular show in black U.S. households and didn’t crack the top 100 of white households, according to NPR. Seinfeld was the most popular show in America, but it didn’t make blacks’ top 80. “Must-See TV” meant two different things depending on your skin color.
This is still the case. During the 2014–15 season, blacks and whites didn’t share a single show in common among their top-10 programs on broadcast networks, according to Nielsen data. The groups have divergent taste in comedies (Black-ish vs. The Big Bang Theory), dramas (Empire vs. NCIS), and even reality shows (American Idol vs. Dancing With the Stars). This split appears to extend to streaming services as well. Blacks make up just 7 percent of the audience of the Netflix original Fuller House, but comprise 20 percent of the audience for the black-led Luke Cage, according to Symphony Advanced Media, a ratings firm that tracks viewership on streaming services. (Netflix has disputed the veracity of Symphony’s data.)
Back in the ’90s, new broadcast networks used black shows as a bridge to eventually reach white audiences. Fox, the WB, and UPN all aired black-led hit shows like Living Single and The Steve Harvey Show to quickly build audiences of viewers who had previously been underserved (and who could attract demographically specific advertising). Later, once their businesses were established, they fazed out their black programming in favor of shows aimed at young “mainstream” audiences — think Malcolm in the Middle, Dawson’s Creek, and Gossip Girl (all currently streaming).
Netflix and its competitors, on the other hand, are trying to “sum up an audience of millions by adding together lots and lots of very small audiences,” says Dan Cryan, research director of digital media at IHS. “Because it’s got genuine data on what each subscriber is consuming, it allows them to perform very granular-level segmentation on the audience in a way that is simply impossible on traditional TV.”
The Netflix trajectory of audience-building is about grafting together different demographic targeting strategies — chief content officer Ted Sarandos calls them “buckets of programming” — one by one. The service’s first big original shows, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, had the prestigious gloss of premium cable. Later came the niche millennial comedies, like Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, that were the direct descendants of NBC’s late-2000s quirk. Following those was The Ranch, a multicamera callback to the biggest sitcoms of the 20th century. And in between those programs the service found time for cynical adult cartoons (BoJack Horseman), historical epics (Marco Polo), and, of course, superheroes (Daredevil).
Finally, in 2016, the service has gotten around to black-led shows, but they boast fanciful hooks: Luke Cage is another superhero property of the sprawling Marvel entertainment empire and The Get Down is a Baz Luhrmann–created retelling of the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx. These shows have more in common with the over-the-top blaxploitation films of the 1970s than the small, human stories told on ’90s black sitcoms. The true successors to shows like Fresh Prince and Living Single are programs like FX’s Atlanta and HBO’s Insecure, which are telling authentic stories of everyday black experiences without having to play to the rhythm of a laugh track like their forebears.
Of course, Netflix’s original programming doesn’t tell us exactly why it chooses to license certain old shows, but the company’s creative arc does provide a window into how it sees itself. “If you’re not seeing programming targeting an African American audience, then it reveals something about the strategy for the consumers they’re trying to acquire,” says Amanda Lotz, a communication studies professor at the University of Michigan who has examined the role of race in television programming.
Ultimately, Netflix wants paying subscribers — a whopping 60 million to 90 million of them in the United States. But the company is still more than 12 million subscribers off from the low end of its target, and domestic growth has stalled to just 370,000 new sign-ups in the most recent quarter. Black viewers make sense as a strategic target. They generally consume far more media per week than any other demographic — 13 hours more live and DVR’d TV per week, and about an hour more of video on PCs and smartphones, according to Nielsen. But only 28 percent of black Americans visited Netflix via desktop or mobile apps in August, compared to 31 percent of all Americans, according to comScore (the figure excludes activity on streaming devices like Apple TV and Roku).
“I would argue that you could probably appeal to African American and urban audiences if you picked up some of those [old] shows,” says Darnell Hunt, the director of UCLA’s Center for African American Studies. “But I guess someone at Netflix is making decisions about cost-benefit. I don’t always think they make the right decisions. … I don’t have the demographic information to tell you who is making those purchases, but if the history of the industry is any indication, it probably isn’t the most diverse group.” (Netflix’s leadership team is 3 percent black, according to the company’s diversity report; its creative and corporate teams are 4 percent black.)
But even if Netflix eventually doubles down on a black audience, that doesn’t mean it will stream Fresh Prince. The company is aiming to split the billions of dollars it spends on programming evenly between licensed and original content in the coming years, as it’s also quietly slashing the size of its overall catalog. That means less space in the budget for the shows of yesteryear, which are generally incapable of generating the kind of free publicity and social media conversation that a splashy original like Stranger Things can attract. “Attention increasingly moves to original content, and importantly, to original content that is not available in other places,” Cryan says. “Nonexclusive content, while useful for launching a service … and topping off a library, is not a good way to help with product differentiation.”
If the Netflix of three or four years ago had decided it wanted to lure a black audience, it might have licensed a proven winner like Fresh Prince. Today the company would rather bet on a potential crossover hit like Luke Cage.
Lotz speculates that the reason classic black shows don’t land on streaming services is simply because they’re not fondly remembered by enough people. They don’t exist in the “cultural imagination” to the extent of a show like Friends, which inspires an endless cycle of internet content.
But black shows certainly still occupy a potent place in the minds of many television fans. Your favorite modern rapper has probably referenced Martin at some point. “Go home, Roger,” a catchphrase from Sister, Sister, is now a dismissive social media barb. A long-running online prank called “Bel-Air’ing,” in which a dramatic personal story devolves into the Fresh Prince rap, was pulled off by a live C-SPAN caller last year. These shows continue to be revered and reinterpreted by the people who grew up watching them. While Twitter memes exhaust themselves in hours, the indelible images generated by sitcoms linger for decades.
Andy Borowitz, a cocreator of Fresh Prince, wants to see the show make the great digital leap one day. Even he is baffled by its current absence from streaming services. “I wish I knew more why because, obviously, I’d love to see it everywhere,” he says. “Friends is on Netflix … Seinfeld is on everywhere on cable TV, and it’s also on [Hulu]. I don’t have an answer. It seems like it would eventually. Eventually it will happen simply because it’s a popular show.”
The next generation of viewers may not get the chance to stumble upon these shows while channel surfing. A lot of today’s teens are discovering Friends for the first time via Netflix. The show and its carefree, monochromatic view of 1990s urban life has struck a chord with teenagers — so say bemused features in New York magazine and The New York Times. In the words of New York writer Adam Sternbergh, Friends “existed at the sweet spot of populist mass entertainment and prescient pop escapism.” Or, according to a 17-year-old fan interviewed by the Times, it’s “a funny show that you can watch before bed and just chill out.” Now it can be summoned on any screen, at any time. This is how a show becomes immortal.
“There is something more intimate about watching an entire season of a show in a couple of days,” says UCLA’s Hunt. “You get to know the characters in ways that you can’t if you only see them once a week. That’s one of the reasons why a show like Friends can find a whole new generation of admirers, because people can kind of quickly identify with all the characters.”
But what about the experiences of that era that exist outside the Friends universe? Watching television has always been about exploring the new, curling up with the familiar, and even discovering the old as if it were new. In some ways, streaming makes this easier by placing hundreds of shows at our fingertips. But the shows that don’t find a spot on the menu feel more cut off from the collective cultural memory than they ever did when they were a channel flip away.
Ringer staff writer Rob Harvilla contributed to this piece.