Soon after Netflix’s Strong Black Lead launched in 2018, fans began pitching the marketing team’s social channels on the kind of acquisitions they’d like to see on the service. As viewers gravitated to films like the “Friday” trilogy, “Love and Basketball” and “Love Jones,” the Strong Black Team also noticed a specific recurring hunger for the Black-led sitcoms that ran on broadcast TV — mostly The WB and UPN — in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Every time we would post about a new show or anything else that we were talking about in the zeitgeist, we would get people asking about ‘Girlfriends,’ wanting to watch ‘Sister, Sister,’ wanting to watch ‘Moesha,'” says Jasmyn Lawson, who until recently was manager of Strong Black Lead, overseeing its editorial output. (She’s now a part of Netflix’s comedy programming team.)
Some episodes of those shows were already available on ad-supported streamers like The CW Seed and Pluto TV. But the music rights had made it cost prohibitive for distributors like CBS, which owns the rights to most of these shows, to do a deal for the shows’ entire libraries. “There’s a reason why you’re not seeing [many library shows] on SVOD anywhere, because the rights are really expensive to clear,” says one insider. “Certainly an SVOD provider doesn’t want a Swiss cheese offering. They want the whole thing or they want nothing.”
It takes real interest from a third party to invest in a high enough license fee that might cover that pricey and time-consuming process. Luckily for fans of “Girlfriends” and other sitcoms from that time period with predominantly African American casts, Netflix came along. And it was eager to tap into an audience that missed these shows.
“Whatever we needed to do to make that happen, we were going to do,” says Bradley Edwards, manager, content acquisition at Netflix. “We were shooting for one and we found seven and we made it work.”
It’s also a boon for the show’s owners: Now that the rights have been cleared, if the deals aren’t exclusive with Netflix, they can be sold to other streamers as well.
That all led to the announcement in July that “Sister, Sister,” “Moesha,” “The Parkers,” “Girlfriends,” “The Game,” “One on One” and “Half & Half” would make their way to Netflix this year. The shows may be 20 years old, but the appetite was there: “Sister, Sister” made it on to Nielsen’s ranker of top 10 streaming shows in October, while “Moesha” quickly hit Netflix’s most-watched list when it debuted on the service in August.
Not only did nostalgia play a role in the success of these acquired shows, but Lawson credits the timing. “We didn’t plan it that this should be in the times that we’re in, given the pandemic as well as the [conversation about] racial injustice, but I think specifically for Black communities, who are one of the most vocal communities on social media, people were just looking for moments of joy, moments to laugh, moments of escapism,” she says. “And now a new generation of younger kids are being able to discover this stuff. I’ve seen so many tweets and anecdotes of people being able to watch shows like ‘Moesha’ and ‘Sister, Sister’ with their young daughters. And also a lot of the storylines just held up. People are able to relate to them, they haven’t really dated themselves.”
Following the success of the shows on Netflix in the United States, the service also expanded its acquisition rights on “Sister, Sister,” “Girlfriends” and “Moesha” last month to Netflix in Canada, the U.K. and across Africa.
The rebirth in popularity of these shows is also another reminder of the Netflix Effect: Although shows like “Girlfriends” have been available for years in syndication on linear TV, as well as those certain episodes available on ad-supported streaming, audiences gravitated to the idea of getting to binge them all on Netflix as if the shows had been completely unavailable.
“It’s been amazing to me to see how fast people are getting through the shows,” Lawson says. “Obviously we’re in unprecedented times of quarantine, so people don’t have much to do. But I’m like, I’m working all day and I still haven’t made it through all six seasons of ‘Sister, Sister,’ how are you guys done?”
In a way, the “Netflix Effect” also gives a boost to these shows’ legacy, given their availability on the streamer. It’s important to note that when these sitcoms originally aired, there was real concern that shows with predominantly Black casts had been segregated to the smaller UPN and The WB outlets. Now, as they get mainstream attention on a major streaming service, that’s not the case.
“I think there has been a historical trend to try to silo off Black content as being niche,” Lawson says, “as opposed to putting Black culture more mainstream because it is. I do think being on Netflix gives these shows a leg up to being in the conversation and the zeitgeist on an equal platform to its show counterparts.”
“Girlfriends” creator Mara Brock Akil agrees, calling Netflix “the place you want to be. And it’s validating, it’s the top of its game. People know how to access it, they know where it is. It’s easy. I think all these years prior, it’s been a scratch of the head, where is the show? It wasn’t consistent. Netflix is consistent.”
Coincidentally, the “Girlfriends” acquisition comes as Akil happens to now be based at Netflix, where she’s developing new shows for the streamer. She doesn’t rule out the possibility of a “Girlfriends” reboot or reunion movie: “I’m there, they know I’m there,” she says. “The numbers are there, the demand is there.”
But for now, Akil is content with the fact that the audience that watched “Girlfriends” in their youth can now revisit it as adults, while a new generation can binge the series for the first time. “It’s nice to have the 20th anniversary and celebrate that feat, for it to still be fresh and relevant for a new audience, and actually being rediscovered and reimagined for the audience that was watching it probably way too early,” she says.
Akil also marvels at the timing. It’s notable that these sitcoms’ leads are Black women, a demographic that has made its voice heard on the political front. “Black women are leading the charge to help lead America to the right choice to its better self,” she says. “We’re pioneering so many places, while we were doing that, but there’s also this on the other side there’s also this sort of invisibility that we have about the value of who we are. And so I think this moment, it’s important to have us on Netflix, the biggest platform where you can sort of get attention, pay attention.”
Plus, viewers who ignored these sitcoms’ initial runs on The WB or UPN can finally check them out. “When we’ve been saying Black Lives Matter, it matters in all areas of life,” Akil says. “These shows were overlooked back in the day. And now, here’s your chance to catch up to an aspect of what we’ve been saying and what we know. These shows matter now.”