Daytime’s Other Drama

Despite its popularity with black audiences, daytime television discounts black talent in front of, and behind, the camera. These industry insiders are pushing for change.

only African American programming director.

Access Hollywood and The Jane Pauley Show are among other programs that Thomas is involved with. Prior to NBC, she worked as an account executive with the
Discovery Channel and program manager with CBS affiliate WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C. Thomas says blacks looking to break into the business should consider syndication. “If you have relevant experience … worked at a local station or on a talk show … syndication is a lucrative side of television, if not the most lucrative.”

Talk show favorite Montel Williams recently entered his 14th season as executive producer and host of The Montel Williams Show. The 48-year-old former U.S. Marine and counselor produces 175 to 195 shows per year (more than 2,500 telecasts over its lifespan). What sets Williams apart from other daytime hosts (besides Oprah Winfrey) is that he owns his syndicated show.

“One of the reasons why this show has been so successful is that I have written in my contract creative control, something that other hosts coming in as bit players or contract players don’t get,” says Williams. As he sees it, the dearth of African Americans at the top has to do with the limited pool of African Americans working in daytime talk. When a show gets cancelled, its employees also get canned and aren’t guaranteed rehire elsewhere. “It is kind of hard to ascend the ranks if there are no rungs in the ladder,” explains Williams, who has seen many talk shows come and go since his 1991 debut.

Of The Montel Williams Show’s 100-plus crew, about 20% are African American, including the only black female director in the history of daytime television, Heather Smith-Prout. “She started out as a booth production assistant,” says Williams. “A lot of the people who started out with me 14 years ago are still with me. I have some of the top African American female producers on the show who were interns.” Williams adds that in this business, “you don’t often get the opportunity to learn from the bottom up.”

René M. Butler was lucky to get that opportunity. At PBS, she learned all aspects of production and soon after worked as technical director of the network’s Charlie Rose and Great Performances. Television technicians are unionized and are typically only allowed to do one particular job. But Butler says, “At PBS, if you wanted to learn audio, graphics, camera work, you could do so.” Nonetheless, she adds that it is tough to get into this business. “Racism and sexism still exist.”

Today, Butler is the Daytime-Emmy-Award-winning technical director of ABC’s The View. She sits at the console of a 45-monitor video room, where she controls the shots for the live telecast and supervises the performance of 25 technicians, including camera, video, audio, and lighting crews. With the exception of soaps, daytime shows have one technical director.

The View is now in it’s eighth season, and Butler has been with it since its inception. ABC hired the New York native shortly after her work with the 1996

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