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So ... Does American TV Ever Mention Africa?

Answer: In March 2018, it was the fourth-most mentioned African country on American television, after Egypt, South Africa and Kenya.

Question: What is Wakanda?

This year, the University of Southern California (USC) released new research showing Africa is mostly invisible to American television viewers. But while the rulers of Black Panther's mythical homeland intentionally shield Wakanda from the outside world, Hollywood extends a veil of obscurity to the entire continent.

Combing through 700,000 hours of U.S. television news and entertainment programming and commercials for an entire month, the USC researchers found that Africa and Africans rarely get star billing.

On scripted shows, there were just 25 major storylines about Africa during that period. Across entertainment programs, news and advertising, the total number of mentions of Africa or one of the 50-plus African countries was much higher at 134,000. But there were 7 times as many references to Europe or European countries.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of all unscripted entertainment mentions of the continent came courtesy of the game show Jeopardy!

Funded by the Ford Foundation, the research-driven initiative is based at USC's Norman Lear Center (named for legendary producer Lear, driving force behind groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family.)

"Were we shocked by the findings?" asks Michelle van Gilder, founder of The Africa Narrative, a project that aims to "engage the world in new stories of Africa."

"No," she says. "But still, when you look at these numbers, collectively, it's really stark. Of the 32 cultural topics we tracked, only three — history, music and sports — had more positive mentions than negative. And of the 25 major storylines about Africa, 14 involved crime or violence."

Many of the mentions in scripted entertainment were in shows like Law & Order: SVU and the NCIS franchises, covering topics like modern-day slavery, honor killings, blood diamonds and terrorism.

Stylés Akira is an entertainment brand strategist. "People in the U.S. have no idea what Africa really looks like," says Akira. "They only picture jungle and savannah, starving people, child soldier."

Johanna Blakley, the Lear Center's managing director and lead author of the research, believes this study is likely a first. "We reviewed academic research on the topic and could not find any significant quantitative research studies that addressed Africa in American media – especially entertainment media."

Blakley's team analyzed content broadcast on each national TV network, in local TV markets and across basic cable TV programming — 916 stations in total – for the month of March 2018.

Not A lot of dialogue

And what of African characters, when they do manage to make it on to American TV screens? Only 13 percent of entertainment storylines that mentioned Africa actually included an African character. When African characters did appear, 46 percent spoke ten words or fewer. Only 31 percent were women.

But things might be changing, on the entertainment front at least. A number of Africans are making inroads to the American consciousness in TV and other media — Daily Show host Trevor Noah is South African, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from Nigeria, Lupita Nyong'o, raised in Kenya and Mexico, is being hailed for her performance in the film Us and choreographer Sherrie Silver, who devised the moves seen in Childish Gambino's award-winning "This is America" music video, is Rwandan.

But which country ...?

Geography isn't being taught by TV either. The researchers found 44 percent of TV shows and movies that do mention "Africa" do not refer to a particular country. As example, the USC report notes that in the film Mean Girls the lead character, Cady Heron, mentions her upbringing in Africa several times but never refers to a specific country. And from its TV survey, the researchers found that the fifth-most mentioned country on U.S. TV is "Congo" – with no effort to distinguish between Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo, two separate nations.

"The singular view of the continent as a homogeneous entity is an additional factor contributing to the absence of African peoples in the news except, of course, for crisis situations," says Augustine Agwuele, a linguist at Texas State University who studies how cultural content and worldviews are exchanged within groups, and who has worked extensively in Africa.

Netflix Coming this month

As a next step, The Africa Narrative will encourage more news coverage of Africa — and more African stories in the entertainment industry.

"The U.S. entertainment industry needs to look at the rich storytelling that is Africa-themed or originating in Africa," says van Gilder.

She points to Netflix as a possible pioneer in this space. Its first original African series, Queen Sono, about a crime-fighting South African woman, will debut this year. And on March 31 it will stream the Ghanaian film The Burial of Kojo, lauded by The New York Times as a "dazzling modern fable." That's on the heels of its deal to distribute the 2018 Nigerian movie Lionheart -- about a daughter who steps up to run her father's company when he faces health problems.

Alexander Wooley works in international development and has completed a novel titled Discontented Drones.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexander Wooley