When Pearlena Igbokwe arrived in the United States in 1986 from her homeland of Nigeria, she devoted countless hours of her time learning the English language. But books, tutors and audio tapes did not factor into her learning curve: Television did.
“I put myself in front of the TV for hours and hours,” says Igbokwe. “A lot of my language came from there. I would recite lines from Bugs Bunny to my parents.”
The 39-year-old Igbokwe’s early fascination with TV has served her well at Showtime Networks Inc., where she is vice president of original programming. One of her career highlights was supervising the development and production of the 2000 original movie Bojangles, which earned an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild award nomination for the late Gregory Hines. A series adaptation of the hit movie Soul Food, another Igbokwe creation, remains one of Showtime’s highest-rated series. Most recently, she developed and produced the critically acclaimed and highly-rated movie Jasper, Texas, starring Jon Voight and Louis Gosset Jr.
Defining and delivering this type of fare is a constant challenge, Igbokwe says. “Clearly, this means high quality programming and subject matter other broadcast outlets will not want to touch or handle.” She says it has become more difficult today to counter-program against broadcast and basic cable because those outlets are now tackling the same edgy subject matter that has come to define the Showtime brand.
Business considerations always work in tandem with Igbokwe’s creative side, says Kathleen McGee Anderson, a producer on Soul Food. “Pearlina’s ability to always communicate what the network needs feels like it’s good for the show — not for some abstract bottom line or in service to an audience-pleasing common denominator,” says Anderson. “She cares about the audience and gets personal satisfaction from giving viewers something to gnaw on.”
Anderson predicts that Igbokwe will soon unveil a series that will tap into people’s feel-good emotions. “Her new projects will be grounded in some emotionally satisfying situations, beyond them being well-told stories,” says Anderson.
Indeed, Showtime currently is developing a handful of comedy pilots that exemplify the network’s brand. Anderson believes that the scope of Igbokwe’s vision is vast, and her future projects “will have a universal appeal, and for sure, they’ll be entertaining.”