Minorities Find a Warm Reception Through Online Channels

DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, November 15, 2009

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In one superwoman leap, [Kai] 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. {snip}

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“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.”

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