ATLANTA -- Since the award-winning "The Cosby Show" ended nearly two decades ago, few TV shows have offered positive images of black families. Now BET wants to fill the gap with new scripted programming.
BET's "Let's Stay Together," a romantic comedy involving contemporary relationships that debuted in January, is filming its second season after helping the network score its best ratings in BET's history with an average of nearly 3 million viewers. And last week, the premiere of "Reed Between the Lines," a new show starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross, pulled in solid numbers with 3.3 million viewers the night it debuted, and 2.9 million viewers for a rebroadcast the same night. The audience slipped this week, though, with 1.2 million viewers on Tuesday night.
"We have a sense of relief that this show may be the closest thing to `Cosby' since `The Cosby Show,'" Warner said.
Warner and Ross star as Alex and Carla Reed, who try to balance their demanding careers while raising three children. Ross plays a psychiatrist who specializes in depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders, while Warner's role is an English online professor at New York University.
Warner, who played Theo Huxtable on "Cosby," said "Reed" has the potential to be a quality show that highlights a loving, upscale black family in the same fashion as the groundbreaking NBC show, which ran from 1984 to 1992.
After "Cosby" ended and went into syndication, Bill Cosby publicly criticized the television industry for failing to maintain the standards his show had started. Over the years, a few shows have showcased positive black images and roles: Andre Braugher won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Det. Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street"; Vanessa Williams has three Emmy nominations under her belt for playing a conniving fashionista on "Ugly Betty"; the family drama "Soul Food"; the sitcom about young black professionals, "Girlfriends."
But Ross, who starred on "Girlfriends," which aired from 2000 to 2008, said that for the most part, TV has lacked a strong black father figure since Cosby's role, and she thinks Warner can now fill that role. She said she hears from fans that they have been yearning for a family comedy show such as "Cosby," with two career-oriented parents of color who maintain a loving relationship with each other and still seek to instill good moral values in their children.
"I think it's time for television to have a man like Malcolm," said Ross, who produced the show with Warner. "There is a version of a stand-up kind of man we haven't seen in a while. I'm ready to see a couple who actually loves each other working it out."
BET took a new approach to improve the brand of their content after being criticized for its sometimes racy music videos. The company researched what their viewers wanted to see and created a lineup of more family-oriented shows such as "Reed" and "Let's Stay Together." The network also brought back "The Game," which set ratings records for the network, after fans petitioned for the show to return to television following the show's cancellation from CW.
The network is expected to have four other scripted programs that will only be shown online. They are venturing into the thriller and sci-fi genres with shows such as "Asylum," "Odessa," "The Come Up" and "Lenox Ave."
Loretha Jones, the president of original programming at BET who initiated the idea for "Reed," believes there is a need to present a broader perspective on television of how people of color live their lives. She said television has lacked shows that include a diverse class of black characters, as programs with predominantly white characters do.
"I give all praises to Loretha," said actress Anna Maria Horsford, who plays an office receptionist on "Reed." "She knew that there are so many different classes we all come from. The unfortunate part is that probably most of the history of us on broadcast has been catered to one class of people. ... Most of the shows that are out there, you assume there's one type of black person."
With more scripted shows on BET, some believe the network can create more jobs and build a larger platform for nonwhite actors, actresses, producers, writers and camera people. The opportunities by the network have provided hope for many of color and their careers.
"BET is just employing so many different actors, especially actors of color – black, Latin and Asian," said Melissa De Sousa, who is black and Latino. She stars as Carla Reed's close friend. "I kind of feel like I'm a part of a movement. It's kind of cool," she said.
Through "Reed," Warner wants to show there is more. As a director for a few episodes, the actor said he's not worried about trying to make the show a hit; he wants to create a show with integrity and dispel the negative stereotypes blacks have garnered mostly through reality TV shows.
"It's about being able to present a show that shows life in a positive light," he said. "To be a part of a show to combat the negative stereotypes that we see. It's something we are bombarded with."