Friday, November 4, 2011

Taking an Internet Show to TV

'Awkward Black Girl' Producer Shares Thoughts on the Web Vs. TV

By Tracy Oliver | Yahoo! Contributor Network – Nov 1, 2011

Last night, a few of my castmates -Issa Rae (J), Sujata Day (CeCe), Madison T. Shockley III (Fred), and Tristen Winger (Darius) came to my apartment to shoot a scene for the next "Awkward Black Girl" episode. Hours after we wrapped the shoot, we stayed in my living room passionately discussing the future of "ABG" til 3am. The topic of discussion: Should "ABG" stay on the Web or go to television?

Six months ago, that answer was emphatically television. I distinctly remember sitting in coffee shops with Issa, strategizing ways to reach potential producers, executives, and networks that may be a good fit for "ABG." We were even writing an extensive treatment for the series, visualizing how the characters and storylines could be adapted into a half-hour comedy.

I'll admit it. The prospect of "ABG" on television is enticing. The thought of millions of people sitting around their flat screens watching a weekly version of the show is pretty exciting. The thought of an African-American female lead with dark skin and a short fro starring in a mainstream comedy is downright revolutionary.

On television, "ABG" could be what "The Cosby Show" was back in the day -- a universal show breaking in several actors of color in front of the screen and writers and directors of color behind the scenes. In a perfect world, it could change the perceptions of African-American women at large and fill a void that's absent in mainstream media.

The only problem is, we don't live in a perfect world.

Television today often doesn't reflect the beauty in diversity, in front or behind the camera. The numbers of writers and directors of color working in television are dismal. The numbers of female writers and directors of color are even worse. According to a recent DGA study, white males directed 77% of all television episodes for the 2010-2011 season, while women of color directed just 1%.

When looking at these statistics, the reality of selling "ABG" to a network lends itself to many questions. Who will become the showrunner(s) and will they understand our vision? How many writers of color will be staffed? Will we able to maintain our current cast? How much creative control will we have over the content?

To answer these questions, Issa and I sat down with a television executive from a prominent network. In short, his response confirmed our worst fears. He felt that in order for "ABG" to become more mainstream, the entire cast would need to be replaced. His suggestion for the lead character, J, was a long haired, fair-skinned actress who looked more like a model from a rap music video than an awkward black girl.

Needless to say, the meeting was frustrating. But also very eye opening. This executive's thoughts on making "ABG" more mainstream stripped the show of what made it a hit in the first place -- its relatability. The truth is, he didn't get our show. He didn't get our vision. And worse, he didn't get our audience.

Our audience is the reason "ABG" is where it is today. They support our vision, and the Web allows us a unique opportunity to stay true to it. Though we haven't yet found a way to monetize the series as we would in television, the trade off is being able to have full creative license over the content, which is ultimately why we're excited to do what we're doing and why our fans are excited to watch.

Tracy Oliver is a writer/producer/actor whose work can be currently seen in the hit Web series, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," also known as "ABG." "ABG" has been featured on several sites and publications, including Vibe magazine, Clutch magazine, CNN, The Root, Shadow & Act, AOL, and the Huffington Post. You can find "ABG" episodes and information here


Shonda Rhimes Sells A Comedy From ‘Awkward Black Girl’ Creator Issa Rae to ABC

By Alyssa Rosenberg | ThinkProgress
Oct 1, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Since my readers introduced me to Issa Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, I’ve wished someone would give Rae, whose biting, original, low-budget show has earned her a well-deserved following, a deal and the resources to take her show national. Now, Shonda Rhimes, one of the few women and few African-Americans who can basically get a network to greenlight anything she wants, has found a way to do precisely that. Through her Shondaland production company, Rhimes has helped Rae sell a new series, I Hate LA Dudes, about the sole woman on an internet radio talk show, to ABC.

This is good, and illuminating, news for two reasons. First, it’s a sign that production companies and networks are finally starting to look to web-based content the way they should, as a source of genuinely new voices and of fresh storylines. In an ideal world, the internet and the distribution platforms native to it, Hulu in particular, should function as a kind of minor leagues for television, allowing artists to test ideas, improve their tool kits as low budgets require many of them to write, direct, edit and score as well as act, and build followings. Not all projects will succeed, but web shows, which are free from the pressures of network scheduling, can take time to develop audiences by word of mouth. If a show becomes a hit online without the benefit of a major publicity campaign, as Awkward Black Girl did, it’s fantastic proof of concept. That Rhimes and ABC recognized Rae’s talent and her audience is a testament to them, as well as to Rae’s work and vision.

The question will be how much leeway Rae has at ABC. Because it’s a network, it’s hard to imagine she’ll have as much freedom when it comes to content or to ratings as Louis C.K. has at FX or Lena Dunham has had at HBO. ABC picked up the show because the network thinks it can make money from Rae, not merely to pick up awards nominations or critical praise, and no matter how original Rae is, she’ll be getting network notes. But in a sense, there’s something invigorating about that proposition: ABC must think it’s possible to do well with a show from the perspective of a nerdy African-American woman whose prior selling point has been the social awkwardness of the character she portrayed, not precisely a demographic that gets heavy representation on network television.

And it’s also exciting to see Rhimes use her capital in Hollywood this way. Tyler Perry, the other person of color who can get almost any television or film project he wants into development, has never seemed particularly interested in using his shingle to help other writers and directors get projects moving (though he produced Lee Daniels’ Precious). And today he signed an exclusive development deal with the Oprah Winfrey Network, locking in profits but limiting his influence. There’s nothing wrong with Perry making that money. But it’s more exciting to see Rhimes single-handedly use her influence to make television a place that’s not just more diverse but more interesting, even in a way that goes beyond her own shows. I’ll be crossing my fingers for Rae to succeed not just because I can’t wait to watch whatever she creates, but because if she does well, that can only rebound to Shondaland’s credit, and if this is any indication, to our benefit as well.

Even though it isn't as cool as the animated version, the logo for Shonda Rhimes' production company Shondaland

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Let's Hear it for the Awkward Black Girls

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