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Execs, Talent Talk Diversity at CTAM TCA

'Queen Sugar' on OWN (Image credit: OWN/Warner Bros. )

Inclusivity both in front of and behind the camera was a recurring theme during the August 8 to August 12 CTAM-produced portion of the Television Critics Association virtual summer tour as cable and streaming services showcased a bevy of BIPOC-themed scripted series and movies while addressing diversity issues within the TV industry.

The newly rebranded Hallmark Media (formerly Crown Media Family Networks) unveiled details regarding its African-American targeted Mahogany movie franchise, which includes the August 28 launch of its first original movie, Unthinkably Good Things. Mahogany senior VP of programming Toni Judkins said the franchise  – based on Hallmark’s 34 year-old Mahogany greetings card brand targeting African-Americans – will continue to follow the earmarks of traditional Hallmark movies, but will be told from the authentic, unique lens of Black women.

Hallmark will launch two additional Mahogany movies in 2022, including one holiday film, according to Hallmark executive VP of programming Lisa Hamilton Daly. 

“What was important was to fuse essential elements of the Hallmark brand with the Mahogany brand,” Judkins said. “The pillars of what Mahogany is … are sisterhood, friendship, connection and community.” 

The Mahogany films will also feature diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera, a combination which industry executives speaking at TCA say is still too rare. 

That dynamic however, can be seen in OWN’s original series Queen Sugar, which will launch its seventh and final season on September 6. The Ava DuVernay-produced series has featured more than three dozen female directors over its seven-season run, according to the network. 

DuVernay said when she started the series few television shows featured female directors, but after seven successful seasons of going against the grain and constantly pushing to have a female-exclusive directing team, it has now become more commonplace for women of color to prominently sit in the director’s chair.

“No one would ever need to do that now because you will be looked at sideways if you don’t have any women directing,” she said. “To have been there … when it was scorned and ridiculed, to the time now where it’s pretty much, ‘yeah, you got to include a lady somewhere in there,’ is a remarkable thing.” 

Starz has also announced a continued commitment to work with directors and writers of color for several upcoming series. On the heels of renewing its original series Raising Kanan – the third series in the Courtney Kemp-created Power franchise – for a third season, the premium network announced it will team with producers DuVernay and Tanya Saracho on new original series as well as musical artists Ne-Yo and Christina Milian on a new “premium take” on the Step Up movie franchise, according to network President of Original Programming Kathryn Busby. 

The shows follow earlier Starz announcements regarding new series from Marlon Wayans (Book of Marlon) and Dear White People producers Steven J. Kung and Justen Simien. 

Several streaming services also showcased new and diverse programming. Amazon Prime Video offered a look at a British-based series Jungle, which follows the  struggles and perspectives of several connected strangers uniquely told through hip hop and drill music. Executive produced by Junior Okoli and Chas Appeti, Jungle debuts September 30 on the service.

During BET Plus’s presentation for the second season of its Emmy-nominated comedy series The Ms. Pat Show, series co-creator Jordan Cooper said that services like BET Plus have opened up new avenues for diverse content to make it to the screen, offering greater editorial freedom and control to tell stories in a manner that might not be acceptable on traditional linear channels.

“I think that more is going to come from other artists who are going to come in and shake the table up a bit because we don’t want to see the same old stuff that we’ve seen for the past 50 years,” he said. 

Recently launched Spanish-language subscription streaming service ViX Plus showcased during TCA two of its new original shows – drama series Marea Alta and the Salma Hayek-produced film Quiero Tu Vida – as part of the TelevisaUnivision-owned service’s 10,000 hours of novelas, sports and other entertainment  offerings and 70 original series and movies it plans to offer during its first operating year. 

“There are almost 600 million people in the world who speak Spanish, and yet only a fraction of the global streamers’ content is originally produced in Spanish,” Vix Plus Executive Vice President and general manager Rodrico Mazon said. “We know Hispanic audiences everywhere are hungry to stream more native Spanish language content – this is why we are investing a massive amount of incremental dollars in original content and sports rights, above and beyond our existing linear businesses.” 

Allen Media Group and The Weather Channel chairman and CEO Byron Allen took the issue of onscreen inclusion a step further during AMG’s Thursday panel session by saying diversity in ownership is key to greater, inclusive representation on the small screen. Allen said it’s imperative for the industry to push for an environment that welcomes unfiltered voices and perspectives. 

“I think we have a situation where we do not have enough diversity and ownership – [women and people of color] do not own enough of the media outlets to control their image and how they are produced and depicted,” Allen said. “Until we have a stronger representation of diversity and ownership, we don’t have a true democracy.”■

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.