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

Case. NBC and FOX also have programs to identify qualified minority talent.

Another reason for the dearth of African Americans behind the scenes is natural generational shifts, says Lee Gaither, vice president of programming and development at NBC.

“Before we start focusing on race, let’s look at generational differences because that helps explain what we see and don’t see on TV. In the past, networks were run by people who grew up in the 1960s, people who understood struggle and witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. It would bother them to turn on the television and not see a brown face on a show. Gen-Xers tend to be more cynical and jaded; there’s very little social consciousness there. The Gen-X executive was more likely to have exposure to African Americans from childhood to professional adulthood, so they don’t carry the same sensitivity about race as boomers.”

Shows about single Gen-xers set in urban settings, adds Gaither, would not pass the muster with baby boomer executives. But neither would much of today’s TV lineup, he says. “Gen-Xers took all of the family shows off the air. Part of that included shows that had ethnic leads. Gen-xers aren’t malicious, just unaware.”

Several celebrities, however, have managed to circumvent this by using their name recognition to convince network executives that their involvement will equal solid ratings. Goldberg, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith all used their star power to influence network brass at UPN into giving their sitcoms (see sidebar) a shot. And Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, recently cut a premium script deal with UPN for an untitled drama about a black family and its struggle to maintain control of a network of mega-churches.

Mac is case in point. Prior to his hit sh
ow, the comedian had a wide following from his stand-up act as well as appearances on Def Comedy Jam and the Spike Lee-directed The Original Kings of Comedy.

“Producing is kind of easy for me because that’s something I’ve been doing my whole career — telling stories that have to do with [my life],” says Mac, who was able to keep creative control of his show by producing it. “When you deal with someone else’s storyline, you have to constantly fight about what direction the characters want to go,” he says, “because as an artist, you see the character one way, the network sees it another way, the executive producers sees it another way, and the writers another.”

And although there are no African Americans in network television who can single-handedly green-light a show, there are only about five people in the whole of network television who can. Gaither, however, recognizes his power and influence in other ways. Although he cannot give the final say on whether a project goes on the air, he says he can put projects in the development pipeline. “But we should also look at the fact that the president and CEO of CNBC is Pamela Thomas-Graham, an African American, and that she can green-light shows on that network,

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