Making History Into Television
FX on Tuesday (Feb. 2) will premiere a new, scripted series focused a true-to-life, high-profile criminal trial with racial overtones: specifically, the case of an African-American man accused of murder amid the shadow of alleged police misconduct.
It’s a scenario that might have been ripped from today’s headlines, but FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story takes its cue from the trial of the former National Football League star, held more than 20 years ago.
As issues of race continue to influence the country’s discourse on politics, crime and punishment and entertainment — the recent flap over the lack of diversity in nominations in high-profile Oscar categories comes to mind — cable networks look to tap a growing interest in scripted content that reflects real-life African-American stories and people both past and present.
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From the highly-anticipated People v. O.J. Simpson, to History’s upcoming remake of Roots to WGN America’s Underground, which depicts slaves escaping along the 19th century’s “Underground Railroad,” networks are offering true stories that most viewers will recognize, but haven’t been fully explored either on the small screen or in highschool history books.
In many cases, they feature common threads that tie into the complex issues of race facing the nation today.
“Black is the new black,” Stephen Hill, BET’s president of programming, said. “There’s a variety of stories being told on a lot of different platforms, so it’s an exciting time for this kind of television, and it makes everyone step their game up.”
Indeed, original series and movies featuring real-life African-American themes have recently garnered both ratings success and industry awards:
• HBO’s Bessie took home four 2015 Emmy Awards last September, including one for best television movie, and garnered Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for lead actress Queen Latifah’s portrayal of blues singer Bessie Smith.
• Lifetime’s Jan. 23 original movie Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart, a biography of the popular contemporary rhythm and blues singer, drew 3.6 million viewers and was the most-watched original cable movie among adults 25-54 and women 18-49 since Whitney, Lifetime’s Whitney Houston biopic, in January 2015.
• Book of Negroes, BET’s six-part miniseries airing in February 2015, drew more than 13 million viewers across multiple platforms during its run. It was also the most-watched miniseries by African- American audiences across key demos.
Another half-dozen cable original series, miniseries and movies based on true-life African-American stories are slated to debut later this year or are in development.
CRIME, PUNISHMENT, RACE
As entertainment projects featuring mainly African-American casts gain critical and audience success, there’s been more interest in shows with historical themes related to the black experience in America, executives said.
“If you look at the landscape today, TV shows like Empire to theatrical films like Creed and Straight Outta Compton have been huge commercial successes,” FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf said. “I think there’s now a greater willingness to embrace more content with African-American themes and perspective.”
Shows such as The People v. O.J. Simpson appeal across audience demographics because they touch on hot-button issues of crime, punishment and race that the U.S. is still wrestling with, Landgraf said.
Viewers are also fascinated by true stories that challenge the perceptions and realities of the criminal justice system, as evidenced by interest in such shows as HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer.
“I think O.J. is about this moment in time right now, and the debate going on in the United States about how equitable our society is or is not, and includes a specific focus inside the debate about the equity within the criminal justice system,” Landgraf said. “In general, we’re interested in the weakness and the strengths of our own criminal justice system. They speak to the flaws of our system and potential police misconduct, but also, frankly, to the weaknesses of juries as well.”
TV movies like Bessie or HBO’s upcoming Confirmation — which depicts Anita Hill’s sex-discrimination charges levied during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — are strong stories of a type that has received little TV fanfare, but with universal storylines that appeal to all viewers, HBO Films president Len Amato said.
It also helps that these shows appeal to a still-underserved African- American audience that watches more TV than any other ethnic group. African-Americans watched 43 hours of live TV per week during the second quarter of 2015, compared with 24 hours by Hispanics and 16 hours for Asian-Americans.
“First and foremost, people are looking for a good story, because those are color-blind,” Amato said. “Then, you’re reaching audiences that are underserved. Even if you don’t have a progressive bone in your body that cares about diversity, just on that level alone, where the rubber meets the road, it’s good business.”
Plus, younger viewers who might not know the gritty details of the O.J. Simpson saga or about the Underground Railroad can identify with the storylines and plots.
“So many people don’t know the Anita Hill story — it’s not exactly something that’s pushed in the history books — so if it brings the story to a new generation and they gain some insight, or they take pride in the fact that a situation like this could lead to empowerment, [that] is good,” Amato said.
The trial of O.J Simpson, as portrayed in the FX series (see related Q&A), set the stage for much of what we see on TV today, Landgraf said.
“It’s the mother of all true reality stories; it is the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle and of crime as infotainment,” he said. “Most young people believe that the most fascinating, crazy stuff that’s ever happened in the world of reality television has happened in their lifetime and, when they see this, they’re going to realize that many of the things that happened during this trial [are] still the craziest thing that’s ever happened to reality TV.
“It gave rise to the media environment in which young people have lived their entire lives,” Landgraf said.
Underground (premiering Wednesday, March 9) was more about telling a good story than teaching a history lesson, WGN America president and general manager Matt Cherniss said.
Though the characters in Underground are fictional, the series stays true to the documented history surrounding the Underground Railroad, the 19th-century network of secret escape routes and safe houses used by runaway slaves.
“Obviously, it’s a controversial time period and it’s a subject matter that’s sensitive and takes a high level of execution and care when you approach it,” Cherniss said. “But when I read the script, I just read a great adventure and not a period piece.
“Too often to this point, people have looked at that particular time period and felt that it needed to be honored in such a way that there wasn’t an opportunity to insert a bit of genre into the storytelling,” he added.
The fact that the pilot includes a Kanye West song — procured under the watchful eye of executive producer John Legend — also can’t hurt in reaching millennials, even if the series is set some 150 years before the hip hop superstar was born.
MORE IN THE PIPELINE
As demand across numerous platforms for diverse, scripted content continues to grow, networks see room to make more stories based on what they call the treasure trove of good, true-life African-American themed stories that have yet to be told.
Along with History’s retelling of the classic miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley, HBO in May will debut the original movie All the Way, which chronicles the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
BET is developing biographical movies on the R&B music group New Edition and on former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“People like to know that what they’re seeing has some basis in the truth,” BET’s Hill said. “Also, with these projects you get to see what’s behind the curtain of stories that you already know the beginning, middle and end of.”
Added WGN America’s Cherniss, “Having many more outlets out there creating original content and looking at things that are distinctive as far as the subject matter is concerned does provide a broader landscape for different stories to be told.”
Black History Month: What to Watch
A sampling of shows set to air in February
Change Agents: History in the Making(short films)
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story(limited series)
Preachers of Atlanta(reality series)
47th Annual NAACP Image Awards
Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to ‘Off The Wall’(documentary)
Here We Go Again (series)
The Next 15(reality series)
SportsCenter on the Road From Hampton University(special)
Rise Up: SportsCenter Black History Month Special(special)
About the Business(reality series)
Major League Legends: Hank Aaron(special episode of docuseries)
Hate in America(documentary)
Also This Month:
• Disney XD and Disney Channel will run a documentary-style interstitial that illustrates the bravery of young African-Americans through the lens of Cameron Boyce (Descendants) and his timeless hero, Jo-Ann Boyce — his grandmother, who was one of the Clinton 12, a group of 12 black Tennessee teens who were the first to integrate into an all-white high school in the South in 1956, following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
• Music Choice will offer a package of music videos dubbed “The New Classics,” including videos from Drake, Fetty Wap and Rihanna, as well as videos from the soundtracks of popular black movies such as Straight Outta Compton.
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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.