In the past, those seeking to view African-American targeted programming would have to watch Black Entertainment Television or wait until February, during Black History Month, when many networks trotted out mostly acquired movies, classic series, documentaries or specials aimed at minority viewers.
But today, networks throughout the year are rolling out original programming, starring — and often produced by — African-American actors and directors.
Executives said cable networks are offering greater opportunities to showcase their talents than their broadcast network or Hollywood-studio counterparts. With greater freedom to examine complicated and not-yet-explored topics — particularly via pay services like Home Box Office and Showtime — industry executives say cable is offering viewers a chance to see African-American lives beyond the stereotypes often perpetuated on more mainstream outlets.
More importantly, the quality and the quantity of such programming is at a level never seen before on either broadcast or cable, according to African-American entertainers.
"There are absolutely more opportunities in cable, especially on the drama side, where cable networks are a lot more open to exploring [African-American] projects," said Edmonds Entertainment president and CEO Tracey Edmonds.
Edmonds is one of the more prolific producers in cable, with credits including Showtime's long-running Soul Food and BET's new reality series College Hill. But she's certainly not alone in getting a chance to produce cable programming aimed at African Americans.
Other well-known African-American personalities such as actors Whoopi Goldberg (Lifetime Television's Strong Medicine), Charles S. Dutton (HBO's series The Corner), Robert Townsend (Showtime's movie 10,000 Black Men Named George), Halle Berry (HBO's Introducing … Dorothy Dandridge), independent filmmaker Julie Dash (Black Starz!'s Funny Valentine) and producers Bruce Smith (Disney Channel's animated series The Proud Family) and Tim Reid (TV One's Gospel Challenge), all have executive-produced, directed and/or starred in cable-distributed programming in recent years.
Others such as filmmaker Spike Lee (Showtime's miniseries S.F.C. (Sucker Free City) and a yet-to-be named ESPN series); and actor/director Vondie Curtis Hall (FX's Redemption) are planning to deliver more scripted entertainment programming to subscribers homes in the near future.
African-American entertainers say the plethora of cable networks in the marketplace have provided them with far more potential outlets in which to exhibit their work than the seven broadcast networks.
Further, cable's niche-based platform is more conducive to telling more narrowly defined and specialized stories than the more mainstream over-the-air services.
"Unfortunately on the [broadcast] network side, there is no place for us," said Edmonds, whose Soul Food series is ending its run this season after five years, but is currently working with Showtime to develop another African-American-based dramatic series.
"There are so many Americans that are watching cable now than broadcast television, so that market gets bigger and bigger. And because some of the cable networks are not advertiser-driven, you have a lot more opportunity for longevity. It's not as much about ratings, but critical acclaim," she added.
Film producer Allen Hughes (Menace II Society
and Dead Presidents) said cable has been more willing to nurture non-mainstream projects than the broadcast networks, which often cancel shows if they get off to slow ratings starts.
"In cable there are a lot more opportunities, said Hughes, who is executive producer and director of USA Network's upcoming drama series Touching Evil. "You're seeing it now … there's so much black programming on other networks. [Cable] can throw more at the wall and see what sticks than the big broadcast networks."
Industry observers also say that the preponderance of African-American subscribers to cable has encouraged some networks to seek out programming targeted to the group.
"There is just a need for more product on cable, and with more product needed, there are more opportunities overall, not only for blacks but Latinos and women, because these are the stories that broadcast networks aren't looking at," Associated Press freelance writer Janice Littlejohn said.
"[Broadcasters] are looking to hit a particular 18-to-49 demographic, but with cable their demographics are much different," added Littlejohn.
Indeed, African-Americans represent nearly 20% of all cable revenues, despite only accounting for approximately 11% of total cable subscribers, according to Atlanta-based digital network Major Broadcasting Corp. African-Americans make up nearly one-quarter of all subscribers to pay services HBO and Showtime, according to industry sources.
In addition, cable features three African-American targeted cable networks in Black Entertainment Television, MBC and the recently launched TV One, affording producers with demo-specific networks to which they can shop their wares.
"There is recognition among the industry of the value of that audience segment, and recognition of the interest non-African-Americans have in African-American culture and history," TV One president Johnathan Rodgers said. "We're in a stage of acculturation where we're exchanging information and knowledge about each other's lives, and cable has stepped up to bat on that effort."
Added Littlejohn: "[Cable] is either looking for a lifestyle type or a gender type, so it opens up the opportunities to people like a Whoopi Goldberg and Julie Dash."
Given the growing influence of African-American subscribers, Redemption executive producer Hall believes it won't be too long before subscribers see a "black" The Sopranos or Sex and the City produced by an African-American director such as himself.
"I think the opportunity is there and the statistics would show that we're paying the subscriptions for those services, and by virtue of that I think we will get more projects," said Hall. His movie Redemption— about the life of gang leader Stan "Tookie" Williams — will debut in April on FX. Last month, the movie became the first cable original telepic to be showcased at the Sundance Film Festival.
From a strategic perspective, networks such as Showtime are looking for the best stories available, irregardless of race, gender or sexual preference.
"We've always thought it was important to address all of our audience," according to Showtime vice president of original programming Pearlena Igbokwe. "People pay for us, so they should be getting something they're not getting elsewhere.
In terms of storytelling, we try to tell as many stories as possible that other people aren't telling, and that includes stories about African-Americans."
While African-American entertainers say cable is more open to their projects, the amount of shows on air is still more representative of a water trickle than a waterfall.
Beyond HBO, Showtime, BET and Black Starz!, Dash said that cable networks aren't seeking out African-American producers and stories as much as they should, given the preponderance of African-American cable subscribers.
"The [cable networks] are definitely going after the audience, but they should be going after [African-American] producers to produce these programs," said Dash, who is featured in Black Starz!'s Sisters In Cinema
documentary in February.
Not willing to wait around for cable, Dash said producers are begging to tap the direct to home video market, which right now is providing more opportunity for African-American producers to get their films distributed.
"That's really going to be able to level the playing field because anyone can introduce a [project]," said Dash, who has also produced original movies for MTV: Music Television (Love Song) and BET (Incognito).
Colours president Tracy Winchester said there are some networks that are offering African-American targeted programming, but she says that such programming is still a very small percentage of the overall programming provided by cable networks.
"Cable has provided an outlet, but not to the extent that they could be doing in terms of reflecting the marketplace — it's still in drips and drabs," said Jenkins, whose digital-cable network offers multicultural programming. "It's clearly more than what it was 20 years ago, but on a day-to-day basis, it's not really reflective of how many people are out there in the marketplace."
New technologies such as broadband and video-on-demand could also serve as launching pads for such programming, but Dash said producers are at the mercy of cable programming executives who control the VOD distribution pipelines.
"VOD could provide an outlet, but the people who program and run video-on-demand will be the ones making the choices about which videos will be programmed," she said. "Once you're not in a position to make those types of decisions, you're pretty much out of the game. If your story doesn't titillate, frighten or in some way jibe with the worldview of the person that's producing, they're not going to do the movie."
While network ownership is certainly a long-term goal, Littlejohn said that in the short term, young minority programming executives are coming through the ranks who could bolster the opportunity for minority-produced programming.
"When there are more Black and Latino producers, they do tend to develop things that interest them and things that they would like to see on television," Littlejohn said.
For now, many minority producers are banking on cable to open their distribution pipelines — and their pocketbooks — for African-American-based programming.
Actress Lynn Whitfield, who recently starred in Disney Channel's film hit The Cheetah Girls and will appear opposite Jamie Foxx in FX's Redemption, said she'll soon be knocking on cable's door soon with several projects she is working on.
"The story of Hollywood is, it's not popular until proven differently, and if someone jumps on the bandwagon or enough people jump on, everyone does," said Whitfield. "Basic cable is proving to be able to hold audience interest and is willing to do stories that perhaps couldn't be done anywhere else."