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

13 of the top 40 prime time shows didn’t hire minority directors. Out of the 860 total episodes studied, white males directed 82%. African American directors did make some progress, earning 5% of the total jobs, up from 3% in the 2001–2002 season. The Bernie Mac Show contributed to this increase, with 62% of its directing jobs going to minorities and women.

Ironically, African American-oriented networks are unlikely to impact these numbers. With few original programs, media outlets such as BET and TV One — a joint cable venture with Radio One (no. 8 on the BE Industrial/Service list with $335.7 million in revenues) and Comcast set to launch in January 2004 — will acquire most of their programming from outside sources. Johnathan Rodgers, TV One president and CEO, says his business model aims for 20% original programming. “We look to do nonfiction programs such as reality shows, game shows, documentaries, and biographies.”

With relatively few African Americans behind the scenes, when a program created, directed, or produced by an African American manages to get picked up by a network, there’s even more pressure for it to become a hit. “If Whoopi succeeds, it will open doors for more shows driven by African American lead actors. It will also open doors for black producers and female producers,” says Wilmore. “It’s hard to get jobs on mainstream shows. Whenever someone with star power like Whoopi or Damon Wayans succeeds, it gives other black writers a chance to make their names known to the networks.”

Whoopi Executive Producer Turner agrees: “It has been a long time since NBC has had a show with a black lead, and NBC real estate is very hard to get. Once you get a piece, you want to make sure that you keep it, so it’s very important that this show makes it. Like Cosby, if it’s funny, people will come. If this show is a success, other networks are going to want to emulate it and take a chance on similar shows. If it doesn’t work, they’ll say, ‘Well we tried.’”

But for black shows, says actor and comedian Bernie Mac, the networks aren’t quite as patient with letting them develop and build an audience. “Black shows don’t get a chance to mature like white shows, and that’s just a true fact,” says Mac, who also produces his show. “And what I mean by that is a white show can come on the air, and they give it three years to develop and let their stories get stronger. But black shows, if they don’t come out the gate [strong] they don’t last.”

Several networks are actively working toward diversifying their ranks. ABC’s Talent Development Program is designed to aid aspiring writers, actors and directors, as well as those looking to enter the executive ranks, says Carmen L. Smith, vice president of talent development at ABC Entertainment Television Group. Smith says last year, five of the network’s seven TV fellows found jobs at Animal Planet and on shows such as E.R. and Cold

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6
ACROSS THE WEB