Using the Web to adjust the color on TV Minorities find a warm reception through online channels
by DeNeen Brown, Washington Post
A black superwoman appears on your laptop in shimmering blue tights, green socks and a midnight blue cape. Her hair in Afro puffs, she is sitting on a promenade bench. She looks worried and a bit worn out. Her makeup is smeared, probably from crying.
She tells us she has just caught her boyfriend with a “second-rate superhero.” The nerve of him.
The woman, who identifies herself as Fantastica, climbs a railing on a ledge several stories aboveground.
She holds tight to the rail behind her, breathes deeply, then announces dramatically: “Death over dishonor.” And lets go.
You shout at your computer: Girl, don’t go out like that over a man.
The camera shifts. You see her falling, slo-mo.
The screen goes black, and already you are hooked to this webisode series “Chick.” You haven’t yet decided whether you like the character, but you identify with her — that torment of being on a ledge, fuming. You want to know what happens next.
An agitated voice-over explains: “Have you ever thought you were meant to be someone great like a superhero?”
Los Angeles actress Kai Soremekun created the black superwoman series, but decided not to shop the screenplay to any cable channels or networks. Instead she persuaded friends to shoot and produce the low-budget series gratis.
When it was done, Soremekun posted the “Chick” trailer on Facebook and the miniseries was picked up by Rowdy Orbit, a Web-based network for “culturally relevant” short films created by minorities.
In one superwoman leap, Soremekun skipped even trying to shop the series to a broadcast or cable television studio.
The Web gave her the freedom to fly creatively, she says. How many black female superheroes are on television now? How many black women are writing their own scripts, controlling their own stories, weaving in metaphors about black women in real life who need to be superheroes just to survive?
“In terms of black projects in the studio system, they have been much more cookie-cutter,” says Soremekun, a seasoned Hollywood actress, who plays the superwoman herself. “On the Web, you can explore other ideas. ”
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Web television has been around since the ’90s, but in the past year edgy new shows by, for and about minorities are proliferating on the Internet. Many of the new series take the form of webisodes — episodes that usually last about five minutes, aimed at the short-attention spans of the all-mighty Millennium Generation.
“You can look at this as revolutionary,” says Jonathan Moore, founder and CEO of Rowdy Orbit, which was launched in February. “It is giving people a voice and a platform to express themselves without judgment or red tape holding you down. Now they can go from idea to production to distribution.”
For years, minority writers, producers and actors have complained about the lack of diversity on television. Last year, the NAACP Hollywood bureau criticized a “virtual whiteout” in broadcast television. “At a time when the country is excited about the election of the first African American president in U.S. history, it is unthinkable that minorities would be so grossly underrepresented on broadcast television,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement.
Robert Thompson, a white professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, says the lack of diversity in programming is counterintuitive, given the breakthrough success of programs such as “Roots” and “The Cosby Show.” “The general politics of people who run television may have at some point been close to admitting diversity and people of color, but the fact remains when the NAACP did its report, the results were shocking,” says Thompson.
“We are not a country that has suddenly solved race problems,” he says. “Even people who think of themselves as forward-thinking and supporting diversity — ‘Oh, my best friend is black’ — won’t watch certain shows. Not because they are consciously racist or don’t want to see black people on television, but they tend to move away from those shows.”
But other factors also lie behind the jump to the Web. One is generational. Just like mainstream broadcast and cable executives, minority players also view the Web as a tool to draw the viewers under 30 sought by advertisers. Research shows that many younger viewers want quicker story lines and characters that don’t take too much time to understand and they want them on demand, with the freedom to pause and replay.
Advances in technology have also lowered the bar for those without deep pockets. “Everybody and his grandma can be a filmmaker now,” says Paula Matabane, professor of television and film at Howard University.
Web sites dedicated to hosting independent webisodes by and about people of color are emerging. Aside from RowdyOrbit.com, entertainer and entrepreneur Percy Miller, a.k.a. Master P, announced plans to launch Better Black Television next year. Miller says the network will provide family-friendly shows, including shows on fitness, financial planning, sitcoms, dramas and “responsible hip-hop music and videos.”
“With BBTV, we’re spearheading the initiative to meet consumer demand for family-friendly hip-hop content,” Miller said in a statement.
BET.com has also entered the fray with the launch earlier this month of “Buppies,” its first original scripted Web drama. The show revolves around Quinci, the socialite daughter of a Hollywood celebrity, and follows Quinci’s relationship dramas as she and her friends “navigate L.A.’s young black power elite.” The series stars actress Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley Banks, the cousin of Will Smith’s character in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Denmark West, president of digital media at BET.com, says that although the show’s core audience likely will be African American, they are hoping it will have broader appeal, perhaps following in the steps of crossover shows like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“Tatyana Ali is actually an alumna of one of the case studies which is ‘Fresh Prince,’ an all-African American cast that had mainstream appeal,” West says.
“Buppies,” which is being promoted on BET Network, is targeted at a young adult audience 18 to 34, skewing slightly more toward women. “Why online as opposed to with the network?” West says. “It’s an opportunity to provide original content for the Web . . . and to see what kind of online audience we can attract.”
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For many minority players who feel stifled by the entertainment industry, the ability to skip Hollywood and go directly to the Internet is an option made in heaven. “The Internet . . . not only covers black filmmakers but everybody who is looking for an outlet . . . because it bypasses the system,” says Thompson.
Moore, a former advertising copywriter, decided to create Rowdy Orbit after seeing the “frustration of a lot of television directors of color who were not receiving opportunities to do good stuff with top-tier clients.”
In February, Moore incorporated Rowdy Orbit and so far, he says, the audience has grown to about 2,500 hits per month. Creators have to raise money and produce the work on their own, but will be paid 70 percent of ad revenue — if any materializes.
So far, there is none, but Moore expects the site to be profitable in about a year, noting that 10 to 12 “exceptional quality” webisodes of 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 minutes each can be produced for the same amount of money as a high-end 30-second commercial. “So the cost benefit alone is staggering,” he says.
Some Web series that have been able to generate a substantial following have eventually picked up ad sponsorship. In 2006, the series Lonelygirl15, which was distributed on YouTube, had millions of hits and eventually picked up major sponsorship. “Webisodes are not big-money operations yet,” Thompson says. “I think we are just at the very dawn of that.”
Rowdy Orbit is now airing a drama series set in Botswana; “Chick,” the film about regular people wanting to become superheroes; “Soul Delicious,” a soul food cooking show; “Exit Strategy,” a drama about a black man trying to break up with his girlfriend; and “Lockout,” a Hispanic horror flick.
“Lockout” was created by Ricardo Islas, who converted a traditional long-form movie into 21 short takes for the Internet. The 40-year-old native of Uruguay and senior television producer in Chicago has made dozens of movies, including “The Day of the Dead” and “To Kill a Killer,” which was released by Warner Bros. in 2003.
He turned to the Internet to tell more fully realized stories about Latino culture. “This is nothing new that Hollywood and networks in general are dominated by white males. They are being protective of their territory especially since the cake is smaller and there are less shares,” Islas says. “What we’ve been able to do is find our niche. And like in the ’70s when black exploitation films were filling a demand, we are supplying what underserved communities demand because main media and main networks are not supplying what they want.”
“Lockout is about [a white] American man fired from his job because he doesn’t want to move to a different location,” Islas says. “He develops a resentment against minorities because he feels they are taking his job.”
As the movie progresses, the man encounters more minorities and becomes paranoid. “That is where the horror kicks in.”
Melvin Campbell, 41, a cook from New Jersey, created the cooking show “Soul Delicious” two years ago.
“What prompted me was watching television and looking at other food networks. I felt I could be as interesting or better,” Campbell says. He didn’t even bother to shop the show to a broadcast network or cable.
“For me, it was cutting out the middle man,” Campbell says. “It was building an audience without having to go through traditional methods of producers. . . . You are just a click away from millions of people watching you. There is power in that.”