Black Women in TV – Are They Making the Grade?
Date: Wednesday, May 6, 2009
By: Tonya Pendleton, BlackAmericaWeb.com
When it comes to black women in the television industry, Oprah Winfrey would undoubtedly be the first name that comes to mind. But there are several other high-powered black women in television behind the scenes who, unlike the O, aren't worldwide brands. Despite these sisters' success stories, that doesn’t always mean that the images of black women in the programs they oversee will be as progressive as you might think. Omarosa, Danger, Hoopz, Delishus, New York, Neffie and Frankie are but a few of the reality TV stars who’ve made headlines for their antics. All but one of them appeared on networks where a black woman was in charge.
We decided to take a look at some of the high-powered black women behind the shows you watch and report on their success - or lack thereof – in showcasing images of black women that are positive and powerful. Are we our own worst enemies? Read on and judge for yourself.
MARA BROCK AKIL, Television writer and producer, creator, “Girlfriends”
Akil is best known for the 2000 debut of the television series “Girlfriends” that she created with sitcom star Kelsey Grammer. In 2006, she created its spin-off, “The Game,” for the CW, which is now in limbo for a fourth season. Akil started her career writing for shows like “South Central” and “Moesha,” eventually rising through the ranks to helm her own show. As a creative professional, she is one of the top-ranking black women in the industry. She and “Grey’s Anatomy’s" Shonda Rhimes, as of the 2007-2008 season, were the only black female show creators on network television. Akil and her husband, director Salim Akil, were slated to write and produce a film for the Weinstein Brothers, but there is no recent word on the project.
Akil has made a career of showcasing black women of different occupations and lifestyles. On “Girlfriends,” Joan Clayton was a lawyer-turned-restauranteur who was looking for love. Toni Childs was a spoiled real estate agent who married a white man, and on “The Game,” Tasha Mack is a sports agent, and Melanie Barnett (Clayton's cousin) is pursuing a medical degree. Akil has done a great job of showing a variety of black women, although the emphasis on relationship drama goes a little too far sometimes. Despite her success, half-hour sitcoms make it harder to develop each character thoroughly. (See: Lynn on “Girlfriends”) However, her overall positive grade is based on the diversity of upbringing, lifestyle, profession and life choices of her black female characters.
SUZANNE DE PASSE, CEO Of DePasse Entertainment
DePasse, the veteran on this list, broke into entertainment via Motown Records. When the label moved to Los Angeles to develop film and television projects, DePasse took the lead. DePasse co-wrote “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross, becoming, to date, the only African-American woman nominated for a best screenplay Oscar. On TV, DePasse oversaw several historic music specials, including “Motown 25.” But she’s also produced “Sister, Sister," “Class Act” and “The Smart Guy," as well as the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries. She’s currently producing “Zane’s Sex Chronicles” for Cinemax.
DePasse is a pioneer in TV, and has produced more of a variety of television shows, specials and events than almost anyone else on this list. But as an executive, she has the edge, with over 30 TV specials, movies and shows to her personal credit. On her projects, including “Zane’s Sex Chronicles,” black women are generally shown in a positive light, as smart, empowered and sexy. “Sister, Sister” was a staple in black households, propelling the careers of the Mowry twins, Tia and Tamera, who’ve never had a controversial moment on TV or off. DePasse has not just shaped images for TV; she’s been a stellar behind the scenes example of what’s possible for black women in entertainment.
TRACEY EDMONDS, President and COO, Our Stories Films
Many people know her as Babyface’s ex-wife and Eddie Murphy’s wife for about five seconds, but Edmonds is also one of TV’s top executives. She and Felicia D. Henderson created the TV series “Soul Food” after the movie of the same title, which Edmonds also produced. To date, it is the longest-running black hour-long drama ever on television, lasting for five seasons on Showtime. Edmonds is also executive producer of two popular BET reality shows: “Lil Kim: Countdown to Lockdown” and “Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is.” She built her company with her husband, but has recently taken the helm of former BET head Bob Johnson’s new venture Our Stories, a film company intended to tell authentic African-American stories.
Edmond’s grade is primarily for her work with “Soul Food,” a groundbreaking TV success story that showed black women’s lives through the three sisters it was created around. However, a higher grade was weighed against “Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is,” a show that has emphasized the struggle of Cole’s family, especially her biological mother, Frankie, and sister, Neffe. Both women have had their issues, including addiction, and are working on overcoming them, but both also continue the dubious tradition of black women on reality TV who are portrayed as ignorant and ghetto.
DEBRA LEE, President and CEO, BET Networks
As CEO of BET and a high-ranking executive for many years before that, Lee has to shoulder her share of responsibility for the programming that everyone loves to hate. (Full disclosure: This writer worked for BET for many years.) Lee joined the company as a vice president in the legal department, becoming CEO in 2005, when founder Bob Johnson departed the company. (BET was sold to Viacom in 1999, ending its distinction as a majority-owned black company.) Since then, Lee cancelled the late-night soft porn video show “Uncut,” but green-lit the Cole reality show and “Hot Ghetto Mess,” a show that an organized protest ultimately hastened to an early demise.
Lee ramped up the news department, but “Teen Summit” was never replaced by another show geared to teenage empowerment, unless you count “106 & Park.” Videos continue to be a mainstay at BET, although less so than in previous years. Reality TV has become the network’s new bread and butter, with Cole’s dysfunctional family leading the way. Lee and BET could do more to showcase the contributions of black women to entertainment, politics and the arts (A Michelle Obama special, anyone?), but it should be noted that Lee employs more high-ranking black women at the level of VP and above than everyone on this list.
YVETTE LEE BOWSER, Producer, SisterLee Productions
Bowser is truly a television pioneer. With “Living Single,” she became the first African-American woman in TV history to create her own series. The success of that show led her to create “Half and Half.” She’s worked on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” also, getting her start writing for the seminal black TV series, “A Different World.” Bowser has probably done more to advance black women on TV than anyone else, as the success of “Living Single” undoubtedly helped pave the way for more TV shows focusing on black female characters.
Whether it was the ambitious girlfriends on “Living Single,” the very different half-sisters on “Half and Half” or even their hilariously competitive mothers, women on Bowser’s shows best represent the cross-section of talented, hardworking, glamorous and funny black women across the spectrum of Black America.
CHRISTINA NORMAN, Former MTV president, new CEO of OWN Networks
Norman certainly deserves credit for working her way up to president of MTV after starting out at the company as a freelance production manager. She gets kudos for being one of the highest-ranking black women in a white-male dominated business full of racism and for her 17-year tenure at MTV. She also should recieve high marks for turning around the once moribund fortunes of VH-1 by advancing the network's “Celebreality” programming. But that means Norman also has to take the blame for "Flavor of Love" and "I Love New York," as well as all of the ridiculously monikered women who’ve literally showed their behinds as part of those shows.
“Celebreality” was successful, and that is what keeps a television executive employed. Flavor Flav’s show was one of the highest rated shows on cable. But “Celebreality” has spawned some of the dumbest programming TV has ever seen, as well as provided a home for some of its most stereotypically ignorant black women. It’s hard to understand how a woman who has two daughters could possibly justify the images that were prominent on both networks under her watch. But now that she’s running OWN, hopefully that means the days of programming that kind of negativity are behind her.
SHONDA RHIMES, Creator, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice”
Chicago native Rhimes wasn’t satisfied with working in advertising in San Francisco, so like many other ambitious people with stardust dreams, she headed to Hollywood. Fortunately for her, she could write. After attending USC, Rhimes got one of her big breaks writing the teleplay for “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” When she found out that ABC was looking for a medical show, Rhimes sold a script for “Grey’s Anatomy” – and the rest is TV history. Rhimes is just one of two black women who have created series that are currently airing on network television. And if “The Game” is cancelled, she’ll be the last one standing.
Rhimes’ shows are multicultural, but sometimes they tend to fall right into the usual TV stereotypes of black folks – never a lead storyline and still prone to be a little marginalized. But the two black female characters on Rhimes’ shows – Dr. Miranda Bailey on “Grey’s” and Dr. Naomi Bennett on “Private Practice” – are driven professional mothers who who look and act the part. These portrayals provide a welcome balance to the stereotypical black female characters that are often part of ensembles.
JADA PINKETT SMITH, Executive Producer, "HawthoRNe"
Pinkett-Smith returns to TV as a head nurse in a hospital drama after several years in feature films. Her show, “HawthoRNe,” is expected to draw much the same viewership of the networks’ other female-centric hits like “The Closer” and “Saving Grace.” Pinkett-Smith and her husband, Will Smith, executive produced “All Of Us” on the CW, so apparently that whetted her appetite for TV work. (She also has mentioned the relatively short shooting schedule for cable dramas.)
While Pinkett-Smith has a great opportunity here and should draw African-American viewers, it appears from casting thus far that she’s surrounded by a cast that is largely not African-American. That’s not to say that it won’t be a good show, but will black women tune in to see a black female star if she’s mostly surrounded by white castmates? I guess we’ll find out.
OPRAH WINFREY: CEO, Harpo, Inc.; Founder, OWN network
Winfrey is obviously one of TV’s most dominant forces and has been for almost 30 years. With her magazine property and the amount of influence she has, it’s safe to say that her legacy is complete. Yet she is set launch the OWN network, yet another African-American female first. Still, her stake in Oxygen didn’t do too much for her brand, and unless she’s going to show “Oprah” every hour, it remains to be seen how this new venture will take. Hiring Christina Norman could be a step in the right direction given her success, or a step in the wrong one, given her programming choices.
For her overall career, it’s obviously not even fair to compare her to others with any grade. Oprah’s in a stratosphere by herself. The daytime shows her company produces - "Rachael Ray" and "Dr. Phil" - have been major successes, as have the prime-time productions TV films like 2005's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and the 1989 mini-series, "The Women of Brewster Place."
For the OWN Network, we won’t know what really goes down until we find out what the programming will be. I’m sure there won’t be any “New York” moments on the network that bears her name, but what it will be, and how black women will be included aside from in the executive ranks, we just don’t yet know. On that venture, she gets an incomplete.