By Aymar Jean Christian
This fall TV season has been tough for minority-led shows – besides maybe NCIS: LL Cool J and Law & Order: Terence Howard. NBC’s much-promoted Undercovers bowed to lackluster ratings. Blair Underwood’s The Event is slipping. Jimmy Smits’ Outlaw is cancelled.
But since UPN, black Americans have grown accustomed to going elsewhere. These days they have more places to go.
The web has brought at least four well-funded online networks focusing on black audiences. One, VisionTube, debuted last week, and another, GLO TV Network, premiered in September. Cable too has been adding channels, from Centric to the Black Broadcasting Network.
TV fans have probably noticed the growth on black programming on cable. The Black Broadcasting Network started last year, targeting young people through independent film. BET still leads the pack, ordering and developing new scripted programming. TBS is having a lot of success with Tyler Perry’s sitcoms and has already ordered 100 episodes of Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet? New channels like Centric and TVOne are targeting older audiences.
Among the most ambitious Web video start-ups in recent months is GLO TV network, a urban LGBT network starting online and hoping to make the move to cable TV. The newer VisionTube focuses on professional independent films and series, the one year-old RowdyOrbit has been distributing Web shows, and Percy Miller’s anticipated BetterBlackTV will focus on family-friendly programming, when it finally debuts.
A lot of challenges await both web and cable networks. On TV, most channels still have to convince cable operators to take them on. Some, like the Black Broadcasting Network, are available in less than 5 million homes. Web networks are either too new to have reliable metrics or have yet to build stable audiences. But the Web, contrary to popular belief, is slow. Mega-sites like The Huffington Post, took years to reach profitability, and others, like YouTube, are still working towards it.
GLO (http://glotvnetwork.com) is the brainchild of Maurice Jamal, one of the few black gay directors making movies today, having worked with stars like Loretta Devine and Jenifer Lewis.
“Its about economic empowerment, our community showing if we can flex our muscle not only creatively, but also economically,” Jamal said. The site is subscription-based, offering full access for around $5 a month. GLO will be home to original programming, including a full-length TV series, Friends and Lovers, a spin-off to the director’s Ski Trip franchise, which premiered five years ago on MTV’s Logo network. It also will be shooting its own documentary series on a variety of topics relevant to the community: including HIV/AIDS and living as a transgender individual.
Charles Williams, who has been producing documentary films and series for TV for a number of years, started VisionTube to give younger filmmakers a chance to distribute their content in a more targeted portal than YouTube.
“It’s not a YouTube kind of thing, where you go out there and shoot something with a FlashCam showing your grandma dancing on camera,” said Williams. “I wanted to make it a Web portal for original content” produced by a culturally diverse slate of filmmakers.
The site is starting off ad- and subscription-free with a couple scripted Web series, 12 Steps to Recovery, about getting over a breakup, and a Sellout, about a young man returning to his community after attending Harvard. Other content will include documentaries and video extras on topics like manhood in the black community, World War II and black women with HIV.
RowdyOrbit has already been distributing original Web series for months, promoting independent work such as the Web series Chick, about a woman as superhero, the new Celeste Bright, about a female banker entangled in a financial scandal, and Money Power Respect, an urban soap drama.
“We’re growing an industry,” creator Jonathan Moore said. “We are the keepers of the new storytellers.”
Aymar Jean Christian (http://ajchristian.org) researches new media, TV and film at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been published in Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, among other publications.