As Black History Month approaches, industry executives and observers continue to laud cable networks for developing diverse, high-quality programming that depicts many facets of African-American life and history.
In past years, programming to mark February's monthlong celebration was often built around such themes as slavery or the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This year, though, cable offers a much more diverse view of the African-American experience.
From a portrayal of an African-American congressman to documentaries on contributions to comedy and television, cable's Black History Month programming will reach beyond its traditional subjects.
"There's definitely more diverse programming for and about African Americans on cable, which benefits viewers and the industry," said Showtime vice president of original programming Pearlena Igbokwe.
For example, Showtime's three movie premieres set for next month —The Red Sneakers, a dramatic, family-oriented film directed by actor Gregory Hines (Feb. 10); Keep The Faith, Baby, about the life of congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Feb. 17); and 10,000 Black Men Named George, about the unionization of the Pullman railroad company (Feb. 24) — all explore subjects not broached by the broadcast networks.
"We're really pleased to see the diversity of programming from the networks celebrating African-Americans," said NAMIC president Patricia Andrews-Keenan. "These shows are starting to represent the multifaceted aspects of African-American life."
Actress Cicely Tyson believes cable has the opportunity to further illustrate the richness and diversity of the African-American community outside of Black History Month — if it chooses to do so.
"I think that cable will be the salvation of television, and it now has an opportunity to become a part of the process of projecting images," Tyson said at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "They are in a unique position because they are seeking a position and they are filling a void that exists right now.
"But once it's established itself and has the power to effect change, I hope they will continue to be the instrument to project diversity," added Tyson, who will be featured in African Americans on Television, a three-part TV Land special to premiere on Friday (Feb. 1).
The special, which chronicles the small-screen history of African American actors, writers, directors and performers, will air in three weekly installments as part of TV Land's Inside TV Land
franchise, network executive vice president and general manager Larry Jones said. It will also will also run in its entirety on sister network Nick at Nite on Feb. 24.
TV Land senior vice president of programming Laura Hunter spearheaded the special for the network, but never saw the finished product. She lost her battle with cancer last October, Jones said.
In other Black History Month cable premieres, Comedy Central will debut a multipart series focused on great African-American comedians. Heroes of Black Comedy
— a five-part documentary project that bows Feb. 4 — will celebrate the works of Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock, as well as highlight the influence of hip-hop comedy and the recent Original Kings of Comedy
tour and movie, said network executives.
Black Entertainment Television will distribute its Celebration of Gospel
special Feb. 19, while Home & Garden Television will debut Homes of the Underground Railroad
— featuring residences where African-American slaves stayed while heading north to escape captivity — on
HGTV will also air Homes of Our Heritage: African-American Visionaries
(Feb. 2), which showcases the homes of seven notable African-American from the past two centuries; Return to Harlem
(Feb. 6), which explores the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance era; and Modern Masters: African-American Artisans
(Feb. 27), which profiles outstanding African-American artists.
American Movie Classics will air several movies throughout February that feature African-American performers, including The Greatest, Purlie Victorious
and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, as part of its Soul Cinema: AMC's Tribute To Black History Month
The network will also debut Backstory: Carmen Jones, a behind-the-scenes look at the 1954 classic starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, during that festival.