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The promise of programming.

RUMPELSTILTSKIN AS A DRED-LOCKED WEST Indian conjurer? Snow White, the Native American goddess White Snow? And Little Red Riding Hood as a Chinese girl named Little Red Happy Coat? Not quite the fairy tales you recall from your childhood. That's because these stories are part of a new animated series, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, appearing weekly on the Home Box Office network (HBO).

Happily Ever After is the product of the Confetti Entertainment Co., owned by Donna Brown Guillaume, her husband, actor Robert Guillaume; Two Oceans Entertainment Group, an independent television production company; and a third partner, Jack Lazard. With the help of HBO executive Carole Rosen and the series' co-executive producer, Meryl Marshall, who presides over Two Oceans, what started out as a set of books and companion audio tapes has been transformed into a half-hour show.

The show premiered last March, with characters boasting a full rainbow of heritages. Equally diverse are the show's writers and stars including Rosie Perez and Denzel Washington - who provide the characters' voices. "We are giving children of color the chance to believe that they can be the princess, prince, king or queen," says Brown Guillaume.

It's just as important for white people to see people of color in these stories."

Happily Ever After represents a new crop of television shows aimed at a multicultural audience. Innovative as well as inclusive, these shows are broader, deeper and more positive than those trotted out in the past. They are the kind of shows African Americans have long been craving, but not getting, from either pay or free TV.

Today, such shows are popping up most often on cable television, with HBO (The Tuskegee Airmen, The Josephine Baker Story, Laurel Avenue, comedian Sinbad's comedy specials) leading a small pack. Of course, Black Entertainment Television also airs African American shows, but, like Nickelodeon, BET has become home to recycled rather than original programming. Unlike Nick's, though, BET's shows are not once-syndicated classics (except Sanford and Son). More often they are black shows that were axed by the major networks. Most black shows rarely make it to the five-year mark needed for syndication, for example, ROC and the soap opera Generations.

Although the cost of developing high-quality, original programming for black-owned networks is a barrier, the lack of innovation and progress over the years has been a disappointment to many black viewers. For them, the questions become, will the swelling interest in producing quality, original ethnic TV continue? Will it carry over to the major networks? And will black-owned cable networks ever be able to compete with those already producing new shows? Or will they be relegated to serving as waystations for programs that the major networks don't want.

FOLLOW THE LEADER?

It's usually safer to follow trends than to start them. And the major networks have played it very safe. With few exceptions (NBC's The Cosby Show was one), the big four have been unwilling to take a risk on nontraditional ethnic programs. Even Fox, once the network of choice for young, hip, urban viewers, has gone mainstream. Headlining its kick-off prime-time lineup five years ago was Keenen Ivory Wayans' hip and hilarious In Living Color. Today, while Fox has picked up the sitcoms Martin and Living Single, the network is best known for the rich-kid soap operas Beverly Hills 90210, and its 20-to-30-something duplicate, Melrose Place.

Widely considered an industry trendsetter, HBO, to which 35% of black households subscribe, has gambled on black dramatic programs like The Tuskegee Airmen and Laurel Avenue, as well as the crude stand-up comedy of Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam.

"HBO has a history of putting on cutting-edge drama and comedy shows, as well as sports events and musical specials," says Brown Guillaume, a Harvard grad who began her TV career as a broadcast associate at CBS Evening News in Los Angeles.

Major networks broadcast to a wide spectrum of people, and so they try hard to appeal to mainstream sensibilities even when a show highlights ethnic life. Meanwhile, HBO's creative seasonal roster and the networks' relationships with independent black producers make for a more substantive, multicultural cable network.

And why not? African Americans watch more TV and are more loyal consumers, says Gregory Amerson, manager of affiliate marketing, West Coast for HBO. "Blacks represent such a large part of American culture. So much of what we do and who we are finds its way into the mainstream." Amerson, who is black, further notes that subscriber-driven HBO can be more adventurous, whereas the major networks are more beholden to advertisers and are therefore cautious.

Debra Langford agrees. There is greater room for diversity and niche programming in cable because "cable networks don't have to satisfy everybody," says Langford, vice president, television, Quincy Jones/David Salzman Entertainment, which produces Fresh Prince of Bel Air, In The House, MAD TV and more recently, a pilot for the USA cable network, Rudy.

"Cable networks want to do programs that break out of the traditional formula," she adds, referring to such dramatizations as The Josephine Baker Story. "When the primary networks do a real-life story, it's usually victim of the week'; that's their signature.

By appealing to a smaller, niche audience, cable can have networks that just show sports (ESPN) or children's programs (Nickelodeon). In fact, children's programming is one of the most lucrative niches. According to A.C. Neilsen ratings, Nick is the No. 1 basic cable network. And Nick's No. 1 preschool TV show is Gullah Gullah Island, the brainchild of an African American couple, Natalie and Ron Daise. Gullah Gullah stars the Daises, their on-air children, their own two children and a huge yellow tree frog, Binyah Binyah Pollywog.

Brown Johnson, executive producer, vice president of production and development for Nick Jr., says she isn't sure that NBC, CBS or ABC would ever want to make a show like Gullah Gullah Island. "It's not considered mainstream enough. Only if it continues to do well will the networks consider doing a show like this, or bring Gullah Gullah onto network television," she says. Nick has committed $30 million to its preschool block to produce original shows. "We're looking to represent all kinds of kids. We have never had a cookie-cutter face of a child on our network," says Johnson, who was charged with developing original programming for Nick Jr.

A FEW GOOD DEALS AS

COMPETITION RISES

In their quest for a sale, black producers, directors and writers are increasingly looking to cable networks for a bite. And not every show idea pitched by an African American is geared toward African American viewers alone. Kyle Bowser, president of Res Ipsa Media Inc., an independent production company, is creator and executive producer of two new shows: Midnight Mac, a variety show on HBO centered around comedian Bernie Mac, who is black; and Trial by Jury on UPN, a half-hour dramatization of a trial that concludes with two verdicts, one by an on-screen jury and the other by viewers who call in on a 900 number. In addition to having signed these two programs, Bowser has a first-look deal with HBO, requiring Res Ipsa to pitch all projects to the cable network before approaching anyone else. It's a plum position of which few minorities in the industry can boast.

Bowser notes that cable is another alternative because production costs and talent fees are considerably lower for would-be TV and film producers. Industry insiders say that the cost for producing a cable show is generally about 20% of what the majors would spend, which is why syndication cation rights are more preferable.

On average, it costs about $900,000 to $1.5 million per episode for a one-hour network show. The production company receives a license fee from the networks that ranges from $750,000 to $1 million per episode. In cable, the license fee often falls below that range.

But it's only a matter of time, insiders say, before the fees come up to par. The forces of free- and pay-TV are already showing signs of synergy.

Independent producers like Bowser can sell shows to both cable and the majors. Also, a show that appears on ABC could end up in syndication on cable or get picked up by a cable network that would continue the original programming. For instance, Dream On, a Fox network favorite, first aired on HBO.

With temporary liaisons and mega mergers, such as the Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting deals, competition is heating up, says Dennis Johnson, senior vice president of the Showtime Entertainment Group. "There is a new dynamic that couples deep pockets with new shows to gain a different audience and produce a better product."

But what will this mean for quality programming with an African American slant? These new media alliances could pave the way for quality, multicultural shows to air on prime time after proving their broad appeal in the cable arena. With any luck, you may one day see Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child on ABC. And Showtime and BET are reported to be in the co-development stage for original programming.

BLACK ON BLACK

PROGRAMMING

In fact, many industry insiders, members of the National Association of Minorities in Cable (NAMIC) in particular, believe that if African Americans really want to see programs by and about other African Americans, they must look to black-owned outlets. Although people of Latino, Asian and American Indian descent have developed their own networks with original programming, African Americans have done little.

With talk of a brave new world of 500 channels unfolding over the next 10 years, the number of ethnic-owned cable outlets could grow significantly. However, the entrepreneurial spirit of many would-be black cable owners has been dampened by the loss of the 17-year-old FCC tax break, which helped minority, women and small media companies buy TV and existing cable franchises. As of 1994, only 9% of tax breaks for minority companies had been used for cable deals.

"With the loss of the FCC tax break, many African American business owners are finding it hard to come up with the money needed to start their own cable networks," says R. Thomas Umstead, senior editor at Multichannel News. Meanwhile, he adds, the media conglomerates continue to merge, creating megamogul institutions. No doubt, owning a cable network comes with a myriad of difficulties when trying to add original programming to the mix. Cost is the No. 1 barrier for black cable networks, says Phyllis Jackson, executive vice president and one of the founders of the World African Network. WAN is headed by Phyllis and her husband Eugene (Unity Broadcasting Network); Sydney Small (American Urban Radio Network), Clarence Avant (Motown) and Percy Sutton (Inner City Broadcasting).

To date, the only original programs to air on WAN have been black collegiate step competitions and beauty pageants. But Jackson notes that plans are in the works to broadcast original shows produced by a number of independent sources here and abroad. She adds that the cable network is also sifting through a number of products for syndication.

Many BET viewers are still waiting for Robert Johnson's 16-year-old network to come out with some substantive, mature entertainment and hard-hitting news forums. As a public company, $97 million BET Holdings Inc. is partly owned by HBO and, to a greater extent, Tele-Communications Inc., the largest U.S. cable conglomerate.

"BET will argue, justifiably, that even with such backing, they're still not getting the amount of revenues as some of the bigger networks - like ESPN," says Umstead. Beyond that, it's just plain easier and more cost-effective to fill airtime with reruns, music videos (freebies from record companies) and talk shows.

BET is a financially strong company, however. The cable network reports earnings of $20 million last year, up from $15 million in 1994, says Raymond J. McClendon, vice chairman of Philadelphia-based Pryor, McClendon, Counts & Co. "Once their core business stabilizes and grows," he says, "BET will generate more operating income, which can in turn be plowed back into the production of original programming."

BET is doing some original programming, through its own movie production company, BET Films, and through BET Pictures. "We want to produce films that will appear first in theaters or on home video," says Jefferi Lee, president of BET Networks. Two films in the works this year: Out of Synch, slated to run on pay-per-view in June, starring Debbie Allen and LL Cool J; and Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, starring Phylicia Rashad and Richard Roundtree.

Despite BET's low overhead, the return from advertisers and cable subscribers (10 cents per subscriber and $500 per commercial spot) doesn't cover the cost of producing an original TV series, says Lee, citing that the going price for sitcoms is $1 million an episode for one season, a 22-week run.

For now, the subscriber-driven BET is still the foremost black-owned cable network around. But as the competition from both black- and white-owned networks heats up, BET'S market is up for grabs. The cable network may meet its match if a fledgling WAN makes good on the promise to deliver African American-oriented news and information programs, gospel performances and films in 1996. Despite ever-rising competition, some industry experts argue that the suburban markets that cable networks target are getting saturated; to stay alive, they'll need to grow their viewership, most likely by courting a much more diverse, largely African American and Latino group. The potential payoff is big, but in a rush to captivate this audience with fresh programming, black-owned cable networks are at an intense disadvantage.

Still, some black insiders remain hopeful. "As cable goes into the urban market and competes [more directly] with TV broadcasters, they'll be forced to provide quality African American broadcasting," says Umstead, who serves on the board of NAMIC.

For now, it appears that HBO is the closest to home for African American audiences and talent. For those avid viewers of BET, WAN and the African Heritage Movie Network who are asking themselves where's the programming beef - consider stocking up on some "soybean" products just a bit longer.

SHARING THE POWER

The issue of ethnic programming isn't just black and white. Minorities want quality, multigenre programming shown on their own networks, but they also want greater power behind the scenes.

"Even when shows are created with a black or ethnic cast, the [executive producer] is usually white," says Zara Buggs Taylor, executive administrator for employment diversity at the Writers Guild of America, West.

There is a double-edged sword in this industry, she notes. "Whites can write for black shows, but we can't write for theirs." A notable exception is Michael Moye, creator and executive creative consultant of Married With Children, Fox's longest-running show.

But the problem stems deeper than just the dearth of black writers and producers. While the $24 billion cable industry is more receptive to ethnic-specific programming, behind the scenes the same white males call the shots.

"There's a difference between being at the buyer's table and the supplier's table," says Showtime's Dennis Johnson, one of the most powerful African Americans in cable. "Blacks have always had the opportunity to pitch products to the networks. What I am more concerned about is that there are few blacks receiving those pitches."

Andy Horne, vice president of current programming at Warner Brothers Television, says he owes his first position at the studio to affirmative action. The five-year veteran is now concerned about the effect California's assault on such programs could have on the few minority recruitment programs left in television. "If those opportunities are taken away," says Horne, "it's going to be extremely hard for African Americans to get into this business."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:Business opportunities; future of Blacks and Black-produced programs in the cable TV industry
Author:Sabir, Nadirah Z.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Words:2618
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