Big Time On The Small Screen

Although few African Americans have the authority to green-light TV projects, many are creating top-notch entertainment and gaining influence within the networks

A career of scripts, show tapings, and working with stars was the last thing Saladin K. Patterson thought of pursuing when he graduated from MIT.

“I was strong in math and science and was encouraged to go into engineering,” says Patterson, who earned his degree in ’94 then headed to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to get his Ph.D.

While at Vanderbilt, Patterson grew introspective and pondered a career far removed from the sciences. “I thought, ‘If I could do whatever I wanted, what would it be?’” In a moment of truth, he realized television writing was his calling.

After his epiphany, Patterson immersed himself, like a man possessed, in the business of television. He poured over books on script writing and producing and dissected successful sitcoms of the early ’90s, specifically Seinfeld and Mad About You, to determine how a winning show is put together.

“I literally sat down and took notes,” says Patterson. He then wrote spec scripts — samples writers use to pursue jobs — and sent them out to contests and literary agents. Although he didn’t get an agent right away, Patterson was named a finalist in a contest and was accepted into the prestigious Walt Disney/ABC fellowship program in 1996, a select program for aspiring television directors and screenwriters. Heading out west to pursue his dream, Patterson landed a job on ABC’s Teen Angel.

These days, Patterson is co-executive producer for The Bernie Mac Show, FOX’s Emmy award-winning sitcom. Although there remain relatively few African Americans behind the scenes producing and directing programming, Patterson and a handful of others are positioning themselves to make a significant impact in the $40 billion network television industry.

Among them are Eunetta Boone, a 13-year television veteran and executive producer, or show-runner, for UPN’s One on One; Larry Wilmore, creator and one-time executive producer of The Bernie Mac Show, who now has a deal with NBC to develop new shows — the first African American to land such a deal with a major network; veteran TV producer Yvette Lee Bowser, executive producer of the UPN sitcom Half & Half; Kriss Turner, executive producer of Whoopi; and Mara Brock Akil, creator and co-executive producer of UPN’s Girlfriends.

There’s no doubt African Americans are represented in front of the camera. And more shows starring black actors are likely to spring up as advocacy groups pressure networks into diversifying their executive ranks and as the number of successful shows created or produced by African Americans continues to rise. According to Prime Time in Black and White, a report published by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, black people account for 12% of the population, yet nearly 16% of the characters portrayed on TV are African American.

From new sitcoms like NBC’s Whoopi, starring veteran actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, to returning shows such as ABC’s My Wife and Kids with Damon Wayans, there’s no lack of Afrocentric programming.

Behind the camera, however, it’s another story. A 2003 Directors Guild of America Report noted that for the 2002–2003 season,

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