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A Black TV Network for “The Rest of Us”

A Black TV Network for "The Rest of Us"

While I’m certainly pleased to see growing competition in the black TV network space encourage heads of these networks to invest in new, preferably scripted original dramas and comedies, and while I’ve previously teased about the increase in the number of new black TV networks in recent years, I still believe that there’s room for yet another black TV network that caters to what I call “the rest of us” – by that I mean, those of us who aren’t in the target demos for existing networks like BET (which is leading in that space, in terms of its original programming push and funding; although with the Akils leaving, as announced yesterday, that perceived push might now be in jeopardy), as well as TV One, Bounce TV, ASPiRE TV, Soul Of The South Network, All Def Digital, Revolt, and, quite frankly, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, even though it hasn’t officially been branded a black TV network.  

A popular argument in favor of Tyler Perry’s work is that he’s making films and TV shows for an audience that was previously ignored and under-served by film and TV studios. I’d borrow that same argument and say that there’s a significant black population in the USA that has long been, and continues to be ignored and under-served by film and TV studios – and many of them read this site, I’m sure.

I count myself, and most of my friends and acquaintances as “the rest of us.” 

Surprise America! Black people aren’t a monolith. We don’t all like the same kinds of things – and, you know what, that’s perfectly OK! We are a varied people, with different tastes, styles, expectations, wants, desires, etc, and it would be nice if that entire potpourri was represented as close to its full breadth as possible, on the big and small screens.

I recall the quote from Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” (a quote I’ve shared on Facebook a few times), when Shadow challenges Bleek’s lament about the lack of support they see from black people, stating: “The people don’t come because you grandiose muthafuckas don’t play shit that they like; if you play the shit that they like, the people will come. Simple as that.”

And when I’ve shared that quote with others in the past, there’s always the question raised about whether or not the people will indeed come, if you “played shit that they like.”

In response, I say, look at Tyler Perry’s incredible success. His people came, didn’t they? Obviously, they like the “shit” that he’s playing. 

BET has had a tremendous run with its recent hit series, thanks in part to its deal with The Akils, as well as other moves the network has made, demonstrating its intent to mature into the kind of network that I think many hoped it could be. 

Also take a look at OWN’s recent surge as another example.

So there’s no reason to believe that a black TV network that caters to “the rest of us” can’t also thrive in this competitive environment. 

So what am I looking for exactly, you’re probably wondering?

Well – comparisons are the easiest and most direct way to describe what I’d like to see on my TV. Therefore, I’d say that I believe that a black TV network with a primetime programming lineup that resembles an AMC, or the FX network, would be awesome!

I’d love to see ADULT black dramas that can compete with the likes of “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “The Americans,” “Mr Robot,” “Humans,” even “The Strain,” “Game of Thrones” etc, etc, etc…

Netflix’s recent original programming push is also exciting, from “House of Cards,” which I really liked, to “Orange Is The New Black,” which I haven’t quite been able to get into, but is something of a darling amongst many black people I know. And there are the Marvel series. I’d love to see a black TV network that has the wherewithal (obviously the financial backing) to partner up with Milestone Comics, for example, and bring some of its various characters to life in individual series.

Note that I’m NOT asking for “black versions” of all the shows I just mentioned; But, instead, black TV programming that can COMPETE for my attention with those critically-acclaimed, commercial TV hits above.

Of course, not every single show on AMC, FX, USA, et al is a hit, or is as strong as those I’ve listed. Each network does have its share of “fluff.” AMC’s daytime programming is comprised mostly of old movies; and you’ll find a few reality TV series on week nights on most cable and network TV channels. What’s key here is that they have a solid primetime lineup of intriguing, risk-taking, adult dramas to compliment. 

Now, I’m certainly not naive. I’m fully aware that good content comes with a price. Sometimes a very high price. Netflix reportedly payed about $100 million for “House Of Cards.” Even network TV shows like “Scandal” cost $2 to $3 million per episode to produce. 

Content providers are emphasizing increased investment in original content, so I realize that it’s a lot easier said than done. Although I think it’s, in part, a question of whether profits now (as in immediately, today) is much more important than investing heavily in great content now that eventually pays off later – at least, you’d hope so. After all, there are risks involved. Some of your favorite shows, which have become hits for the networks that air them, were passed over by other networks previously. Series that likely seemed like surefire hits initially, to network execs, failed to hold audiences, and eventually crashed and were canceled.

But I truly believe that there’s a black audience that’s HUNGRY for adult dramas, comedies, thrillers, action series, mystery, horror, sci-fi, and combinations of all of those genres (like those I listed above, and others), with predominantly black characters starring in them, showing us at our best, our worst, our most kind, our most evil, and everything between.

Let me stop and say that I’m certainly not knocking existing black TV networks. As I highlighted earlier, each network has its target audience. But it’s shortsighted to think that every single black person is (or the majority of black people are) being reached by these existing networks. There are roughly 40 million black people in the USA; the 6 season premiere episode of “The Game,” drew 2.5 million viewers, by comparison. 

Like I said, we’re a varied and diverse people, and while a popular series like “The Game” (and I’m not singling it out for any specific reason; it’s just one of a small handful of popular “black shows”) clearly speaks to a significant black audience, I and almost every black person I know personally, aren’t members of that audience. And, again, that’s perfectly OK. 

“The Rickey Smiley Show” did well enough for the network that carries it (TV One), and clearly has its own supportive audience, and, gasp, it actually may not be the same audience that watches “The Game,” or “Being Mary Jane,” for example.

The series Tyler Perry created for OWN have also done very well for Oprah’s network (breaking ratings records at will), but, again, these aren’t programs that a lot of us watch.

Shocking, right?

So what about “the rest of us” who watch TV, looking for what we feel are shows that appeal to and speak to us, that also happen to be created by and star black people? I suppose we could look to the web certainly, especially as what we now know as “TV” in 2015 is being redefined, and isn’t quite what it used to be 10 to 15 years ago. Check out the growing empire of original scripted series that the Black & Sexy TV crew have been building over the years. Of course, we all know about Issa Rae’s success, although she’s making her own push into traditional TV, via HBO. 

And I suppose that’s what a lot of us are doing. Or, if you’re like me, you’re just not watching a lot of TV, and are instead relying on the web, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc and your preferred set-top box, for much of your content.

Certainly, existing black TV networks will, over time, add the kind of primetime programming that appeals to folks like myself, to their respective lineups, and it may just take a little while to get there. Or maybe not. As I said, each has its target demo, and to suddenly introduce programming that doesn’t immediately seem like a good fit with that specific audience, could be disastrous – especially financially, given the costs involved.

Although I was pleasantly shocked when I learned that BET had boarded Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo’s anticipated screen adaptation of author Lawrence Hill’s award-winning bestseller, “The Book of Negroes.”

So maybe that’s one answer – partnering up with other organizations to share costs.

But, to wrap this up, if there existed a black TV network that resembles the one I summarized above, is there a large enough audience to support it, ensuring that the kinds of edgy, aggressive, smart, gritty programs of all genres many of us enjoy on other networks, stay on the air?

Discuss…

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