Few programming executives over the past year have had as golden a touch as Freeform and Onyx Collective president Tara Duncan.
From overseeing the summer 2021 debut of Freeform’s most-watched series ever in Cruel Summer to winning a 2022 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in March for Onyx Collective’s Summer of Soul — produced by musician Questlove — Duncan is pushing all the right buttons, as she has throughout her career.
Duncan’s brand is already synonymous with some of the most iconic shows in the history of television, including Orange Is the New Black, Bosch and The Killing, and she hopes to continue to successfully create content while opening the doors for other diverse voices to make their mark on the industry.
Duncan grew up in Southern California as a rabid television viewer, but she couldn’t see herself building a career in the industry. It wasn’t until one of her favorite TV shows was canceled that she began to understand there was more to the business than what was on-screen.
“I was such a big fan of My So-Called Life, so when they canceled it I wrote a letter to ABC demanding that it be put back on,” she said. “So I guess in some way I was aware that there were some decision-makers behind the scenes, but I never really saw myself as someone who would be in that position.”
As a high school senior, Duncan interned at ABC through her participation in the cable industry’s Emma L. Bowen Foundation diversity organization. She recalled being an avid General Hospital fan and having the opportunity to do some extra work on the show as an intern.
“It was the Emma Bowen Foundation that really provided the access and opportunity to get into the business,” she said. “Even though I really wanted to work in the movies, I always had a track to be in television.”
After graduating from Loyola Marymount University and working a stint at production company Section Eight — founded by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh — Duncan moved to New York City in 2005. She worked for HBO before taking a production job at AMC.
“It was still the early days of building the original series slate over there at AMC,” she recalled. “My first day I watched the pilot for Breaking Bad, which was the new show that the network was going to be putting on the air.”
Plunged Into Streaming
It would be the lure of a new distribution platform that would draw Duncan away from the cable industry and toward the streaming services, where her production fingerprints are on a number of iconic series. At Amazon’s Prime Video, she produced the pilot for the service’s first drama series Bosch. As a Netflix creative executive, she oversaw the development of Orange Is the New Black and Narcos, and at Hulu she is developing an adaptation of Zakiya Dalila Harris’s novel The Other Black Girl as part of a 2020 development deal.
“With the streamers, you can make more programming for more types of audiences because you’re not as beholden to a linear schedule,” she said. “Especially for where I was in my career, it provided me with the opportunity to just dive in and actually get my hands dirty.”
Duncan’s ascent up the content production ranks was aided by a number of powerful, female mentors that she says has helped her achieve her career goals, including HBO executive VP of comedy programming Amy Gravitt, Amazon Studios programming executive Christina Wayne, former Netflix programming executive Cindy Holland and Walt Disney Television entertainment chairman Dana Walden.
“When I first started working with the Hulu Originals team, Craig Erwich told me I had to meet Tara Duncan, who had an overall deal at the time with Hulu, because I was going to love her,” Walden said. “He told me she has amazing taste and fantastic relationships in the creative community. He was exactly right.
“As soon as we had a president-level role available, Tara was my first call,” Walden continued. “Her sensibilities are exactly right for our young adult brand, Freeform: Her first series out of the gate, Cruel Summer, was the biggest series debut in the network’s history. And given that she hand-picked Summer of Soul, which went on to win an Oscar, to be the inaugural piece of content for Onyx Collective, I’d say we got the perfect leader for that team,as well.”
Along with continuing to build on Freeform’s youth-targeted brand and to provide quality, diverse content for the one-year-old, Hulu-centric Onyx Collective, Duncan hopes to serve as a mentor herself to the next generation of diverse content creators seeking to tell their stories onscreen.
“I would love to be a positive influence for another generation of executives who are coming in,” Duncan said. ■
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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