Rise Up

On Jan. 8, actor and director Donald Glover was onstage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles accepting the best comedy series Golden Globe Award for FX’s freshman series Atlanta, for which he was a first-time executive producer.

Glover, who would also win the Globe for best actor in a comedy series, thanked the “the black folks” in Atlanta for being “amazing people.”

What’s been amazing for the television industry is the infusion of young, African- American executive producers and creators like Glover who have created popular scripted programming with diverse images and storylines that, until just a few years ago, had been rarely seen on the small screen.

Whether its Selma producer Ava DuVernay examining the complex lives of estranged Louisiana siblings in OWN’s Queen Sugar, rapper 50 Cent and Courtney Kemp Agboh exploring the double life of a club owner who’s also a drug kingpin in Starz’s drama series Power, or Internet sensation Issa Rae keeping it real about the lives of single black women in HBO’s freshman comedy series Insecure, African-American creators and producers are stepping up to the plate and delivering quality, unfiltered programming with broad appeal to a cross section of viewers.


More newbie African-American TV creators and producers are set to make their debut in 2017, as an unprecedented 500 scripted series are expected to reach TV scereens this year, according to a recent FX study. Showtime has tapped actress Lena Waithe (Netflix’s Masters of None) to helm its upcoming drama series Chi, while several high-profile movie producers will move to the small screen with scripted projects, including Spike Lee (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It) and John Singleton (FX’s Snowfall).

Singleton, an Oscar-nominated director for 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, said television is now providing more opportunities to develop projects targeted to diverse viewers. Singleton, who earned an Emmy Award nomination for his direction of an episdode of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, will also produce Rebel, a police drama series for BET set to debut in March.

“With TV, it’s like you’re making a movie every week,” Singleton said.

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As the definition of what constitutes TV widens, African-American-helmed scripted series are making their mark in the current environment of high-quality programming.

“There’s been talk about the golden age of television for a while now, and because there are so many ways to get your content out there it opens the door for a lot more voices to be heard instead of when there were just three or six gatekeepers controlling everything people see,” said music superstar John Legend, an executive producer of WGN America’s sophomore drama series Underground, which chronicles the escape of antebellum-era Southern slaves via the Underground Railroad.

Legend added, “It has been great for diversity on television.”

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Still, the question remains whether the influx of African-American showrunners and producers will be a passing trend or a key feature of television’s future. Even as African-American-produced, directed and created projects on cable networks proliferate across cable networks and streaming services, minority producers remain rare behind the camera.

Minority show creators in general represented just 7.8% of cable scripted shows during the 2013-14 season, according to the UCLA 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report. While those numbers will undoubtedly climb over the next few years as post-2014 shows like ABC’s Black-ish and Starz’s Power are factored in, Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, said at September’s NAMIC Conference that the representation numbers will still remain below the overall U.S. minority population.

The history of the entertainment industry is littered with periods when movies and TV shows featuring African-American culture looked to have broken into the mainstream, only to nearly vanish within a few years, Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny said.

In particular, he pointed to what was initially thought of as the “Golden Age” of diversity in movies during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when films such as Menace II Society, She’s Gotta Have It and Boyz n the Hood seemed ready to open doors to more films directed and produced by African-Americans. But in the 2000s, few movies from mainstream studios were being helmed by African-American writers, directors and producers.

“The truth is I have no idea,” Penny said when asked whether the current trend of African-American produced content will be long-lasting. “There are always those moments where they make all of these projects and then, 10 years later, there’s nothing. I hope this is [sustainable] and that lots of voices can get heard.”

Certainly, the critical and audience appeal for these shows bodes well for a potentially sustained future. FX’s Atlanta, which follows the lives of cousins trying to make it big in the city’s rap scene, drew 3 million viewers in its Sept. 6 premiere, the most for an FX series in five years. That was followed by a slew of industry accolades, including a Critics’ Choice Award and two Golden Globe Awards for Glover, both as an actor and producer of the series.

Last month, FX rewarded Glover with an exclusive television production deal that includes a second season of Atlanta, set to return in 2018 after Glover finishes his work on the next Star Wars film.

“We’re going to try to get that show back as soon as we can because there’s a great audience that wants that show,” FX president Eric Schrier said during the network’s Television Critics Association tour press event last month.

HBO’s Insecure, which drew 1.1 million viewers in its Oct. 9 premiere, has also been renewed for a second season. Penny — who will produce and star in truTV’s reality series Upscale With Prentice Penny, set to debut in March — said he was initially surprised at the incredibly positive response to the show.

“There’s no formula … you have no idea what people will respond to,” he said. “I feel blessed that people responded to it. You can’t control what the viewing public decides to watch, so you just have to do the best you can.”

He also said that the expansion of distribution outlets via online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube will continue to create opportunities for diverse images and stories to be produced.

Added Underground’s Legend: “The landscape was much different then because there are way more distribution channels now — not just cable, satellite or premium channels but so many other places, like Netflix and Hulu, where people can view content. As content creators, its gives us more latitude to populate these different channels with interesting and diverse content.

“It’s made TV more diverse than film because there are so many different opportunities for audiences to get what they’re looking for on television, which means a diverse range of viewpoints and voice can be seen and heard,” Legend added.

Beyond selected hit shows, networks are well aware that African- American viewers are an important audience. African-Americans continue to consume more video than any other group, thereby increasing the viability of content that appeals directly to those viewers. African-Americans average more than 42 hours of live TV viewing during the third quarter of 2016, according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report, well above the U.S. average of 29 hours, Hispanics (22 hours) and Asian-Americans (14 hours).


Also, as the overall U.S. population continues to diversify, the need for new, unique stories told from a different point of view will force linear network distributors to continue to foster the development of content created by producers and creators of color — otherwise, audiences will migrate to the web, Penny said.

“I think that in the digital space people can just make their own content and put it out there for people to connect to right away,” Penny said. “It changes how we get content to the marketplace, so it definitely opens the door for literally anybody of any color or nationality that has something to say to put it out and get a response right away.”

FX Networks president John Landgraf said 52% of FX’s show directors in 2017 will not be white men, in an effort to better reflect the diversity of the network’s audience.

“We’re going to keep going until everything about our channel and every aspect of our channel is fair and better reflects the diversity of the population of the country we live in, and is not as skewed as the whole industry has been towards white heterosexual males,” Landgraf said at the last month’s Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Added Underground executive producer Misha Green: “I think the diversification of stories that are being told right now will continue because there are more outlets. I think more content is needed, and the gatekeepers who wanted to keep the gate closed are now saying we need shows. I think the increase of content has helped more diverse voices come through, but more still need to come through. I can’t wait to see and hear those voices.”

R. Thomas Umstead

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.