Cable has always been in the forefront of the TV industry in the creation of quality programming for multi-cultural audiences — but it rarely receives the accolades for its important and significant commitment to diversity.
The exception is the Vision Awards, presented by the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity In Communications (NAMIC), which raises the curtain for its 10th annual event April 16 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.
In fact, the awards presentation, which honors industry executives, organizations and networks that have demonstrated a commitment to producing quality, multi-ethnic and cross-cultural original programming, remains the only cable-centric awards ceremony focused on quality programming.
NAMIC executives say the awards exemplify cable’s commitment to developing and presenting diverse images onscreen while at the same time serving as a reminder that the industry needs to continue its efforts to guarantee that all people of color are well represented on the boob tube.
The Vision Awards began in 1995 as the brainchild of former Home Box Office producer Kyle Bowser and then NAMIC Southern California chapter president Kathy Johnson. It was conceived as an event to recognize the numerous drama, comedy, news, documentary and children’s programs that cable networks were airing about and for people of color.
In retrospect, the awards made their debut at a time when cable networks revved up efforts to create multi-cultural content as the industry looked to grow its subscriber base. In the mid 1990s, networks such as Home Box Office, Showtime, Lifetime Television, Black Entertainment Television and The Disney Channel were airing programming featuring the lives and stories of people of color in far greater quantity than the mainstream broadcast networks. Cable also brought to light stories and issues of interest to minority viewers that broadcast television was not offering through its often stereotypical, sitcom-studded primetime lineups.
“We knew that cable in many ways was years beyond broadcast in terms of its depiction of people of color and showing us in a more realistic way than the broadcasters. But there was no vehicle to recognize that,” says Bowser, who currently oversees Res Ipsa Media, Inc., a multi-media production company that has production deals with Warner Bros., HBO and 3 Arts Entertainment.
THE DIVERSITY EDGE
“It’s one of the areas of diversity where cable excels. The body of work that the cable industry produces versus what’s going on with the networks is something that cable should be proud of,” he adds.
At the time the Vision Awards were created, the ACE Awards touted the industry’s programming excellence, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offered its own Image Awards highlighting excellence in programming geared to African-Americans on broadcast television. But Johnson says the Vision Awards were, and still remain, the only vehicle that celebrates cable’s ingenuity in developing multi-cultural programming.
“There was programming targeting minorities, but no one was really acknowledging it,” Johnson says. “The impetus [of the awards] was to encourage companies to continue to produce programming that was reflective of all ethnicities.”
With the ACE Awards having exited the cable stage in 1999, the Vision Awards presentation now stands alone as “not only the only programming award that focuses on people of color for cable but also the only programming award for cable, period,” notes Bowser.
Along with awarding the industry’s best content, Johnson says the Vision Awards also take time to recognize the individual pioneers and network trailblazers that have furthered the cause of diversity.
The Vision Award’s North Star Award recognizes organizations for their outstanding efforts in spearheading diversity in telecommunications. It has been awarded to cable and non-cable organizations, including The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, Home Box Office, Black Entertainment Television and Showtime.
The Quasar Award honors individuals who have worked to advance the cause of diversity. Recipients have included such prestigious leaders as former Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.
The newer Legacy Award recognizes a trailblazing individual or body of work that has made an indelible impact on the diversity landscape.
Johnson, currently NAMIC’s executive vice president, says that the awards have grown in stature over the years — not only within the cable industry but also within the ranks of Hollywood. During its first nine years, the Vision Awards presentation has drawn such star power as comedian Byron Allen, actor/producer Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), Raven Symone (The Cosby Show, Disney’s That’s So Raven) and Michael De Lorenzo (Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd.). Former award-winners honored at the event included TBS’s Chasing the Dream, a movie about baseball great Hank Aaron.
“We really think the event has matured and become a significant event within our industry and has been embraced by the industry,” says Bowser.
Johnson adds attendance for the show has tripled from an audience of 200 participants for the first show to more than 600 expected for this year’s 10th anniversary event.
MORE ENTRANTS EVERY YEAR
The number of award entries — each year networks submit shows for recognition — has also increased over the years, illustrating how prestigious the awards have become among cable networks.
“It’s something that the programmers look forward to. They call our offices throughout the year to find out when we’re accepting entries,” Johnson says. “It’s a positive testament to the fact that people are stepping up to the output of programming that’s reflective of all groups.”
Showtime president of entertainment Bob Greenblatt says the network’s Vision Awards past nominations and wins are gratifying. “We have been a leader in all forms of diverse ethnic programming for years, and we’re very happy to be recognized by this esteemed organization.” Showtime is nominated for eight this year, including one for Deacons for Defense, a Showtime original movie.
Greenblatt adds that the awards are positive proof that the network’s commitment to offering diverse images and stories on television is a philosophy that should be embraced by other media companies.
“It’s almost impossible to find dramas or movies with predominantly ethnic casts anywhere on broadcast or even cable television, and at Showtime it’s just part of our routine programming,” Greenblatt says. “We don’t understand why it doesn’t happen elsewhere. But until it does, we’re happy to be the leaders.”
The event also has drawn MSO support and corporate sponsorships over the years from such companies as Time Warner and this year’s sponsor, Comcast Corp.
As NAMIC continues to celebrate cable’s commitment to diverse programming, it is also aware that even more can be done to provide a television landscape that’s more representative of the U.S. viewing audience.
“If you look at the [minority-targeted] programming as a percentage of all [cable] programming compared to all programming being created, it’s still pretty miniscule,” Johnson says.
Bowser adds: “There’s vast room for improvement. When you take all of the programming hours that are submitted for Vision Awards consideration, it’s very impressive. But it’s only a pimple in comparison of the total number of programming hours on the spectrum.”
With minority viewers expected to represent a significant portion of cable’s overall subscriber revenue growth in the coming years, Bowser says there will be a greater hue and cry for more programming targeted to and about people of color. He maintains that Vision Awards will remain a staple for the industry to celebrate its commitment and accomplishments. They’re also a way for NAMIC and other organizations to keep the importance of diverse programming top of mind among industry leaders.
“There will always be a need for the Vision Awards because there will always be a need and a desire to celebrate diversity,” Bowser says. “We attract people into the tent by passing out these wonderful trophies. But while we have them in the tent, we take the time to talk about some of the issues that still have to be resolved.”