CYNOPSISMEDIA Presents: Black History Month



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CYNOPSISMEDIA Presents: Black History Month

by Cathy Applefeld Olson

Against a backdrop of the Oscars whiteout across major categories and a tumultuous year in the African-American community, this year’s slate of Black History Month programming is poised to be more impactful than ever as some networks shine a lens on current history-makers.

The awards show controversy erupted after most networks had cemented their BHM plans, and executives contacted by Cynopsis are mixed on the effect it will have on the month’s television landscape.


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“Diversity in the Oscars has become a national conversation,” says Dawn Douglass, director of program planning at Bounce TV. “If the Academy Awards controversy leads to a more thoughtful dialogue on diversity it could lead to an even more meaningful Black History Month this year.”

Others don’t anticipate a big shift. “Candidly, I don’t think it’s going to affect Black History Month, but it’s going to greatly affect the Oscars,” says BET programming chief Stephen Hill. Noting the Academy has “done a wonderful job of addressing the issue head on,” Hill adds, “There may be some unrest in that voting body, but unrest always precedes change.”

He says the Oscar conversations will not affect the BET Honors, which air February 23 as a cornerstone of the network’s BHM content. “We are going to do what we always do – celebrate the achievements of African Americans.”

At TV One, which has been covering the Oscars story on its daily live show NewsOne Now with Roland Martin, network president Brad Siegel expects the controversy will bring a larger audience to its airing of the 47th NAACP Image Awards on February 5. The network is using the event to introduce its new on-air look and tagline, “Represent.”

“We have a vision of the future that can only be achieved by defying expectations. Our new brand identity will underscore the importance of re-presenting and re-imagining ourselves to our viewers,” says Siegel. He adds, “A lot of what we’re seeing in the social commentary is that there will be a lot of attention paid to what happens with the Image Awards.” The fact that one of the Image Awards producers, Reginald Hudlin, is also on the Academy Awards production team is drawing increased attention to the event, he says.

Past, Present and Future
One shift select programmers had in the works to notch up the month’s meaningfulness is a focus on programming that looks ahead to current and future black history-makers as much as it looks back.

TV One on February 1 bowed Change Agents: History In the Making, a series of 21 documentary shorts from five indie African-American filmmakers – Alton Glass (CRU), Jeanine Daniels (The Guy and The Couple), P. Frank Williams (Unsung) and Che “Rhymefest” Smith (co-writer Jesus Walks and Glory). The shorts focus on current newsmakers enacting change; one short will air every night during the month.

“Every year you tend to see and hear the same thing – looking back at the big moments in African-American history and telling those same stories over and over again,” says Siegel. “We went into this year with a vision that’s about moving forward. There is so much going on in the world now. Black Lives Matter is a revolutionary movement people haven’t seen since the civil rights movement. We decided, let’s not tell stories about what’s happened over the past 100 years; let’s talk about stories happening now and people creating history.”

TV One is also debuting a slate of new programming this month, including comedy series Here We Go Again on February 9, fourth wall-buster The Next: 15 on February 10, and comedic film Definitely Divorcing on February 20.

Music Choice’s 2016 Black History Month theme, “The New Classics,” highlights “today’s history makers that are changing our culture now,” says Damon Williams, SVP, programming strategy and partnerships. “This content appeals to our millennial audience as well as baby boomers.”

On the playlist are hip-hop and R&B artists including Fetty Wap, The Weeknd, Rihanna , Drake and Beyonce, plus many of the artists who inspired them. “During the month of February we try to too look forward to the impact today’s influencers are having on culture that is impactful,” Williams says. “We are now focusing on contemporary artists and music that are making history today.”

“BHM programming more than ever covers not only history, which will always be critically important, but also looks to produce stories about current history makers of today,” notes says Tina Thompson, director of programming for ASPiRE.

“This year during BHM, we’re continuing to provide that platform for the next generation,” she adds. “The hosts of a new original series that’s coming in October called Butter and Brown, a comical culinary series, are making their debut on the network as hosts of a new quarterly movie block called, "Small Bites, Big Stars" starting in February for Black History Month.

Hill notes the BET Honors is a consistent way for the network to salute some of today’s great African-Americans each year. “For us every month is in some way shape or form Black History Month,” he tells Cynopsis. BET will also debut the basic cable premiere of Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave on Friday, February 27 at 8p.

“BHM programming unfortunately hasn’t really evolved over the years and programmers tend to focus on the literal interpretation of the history of the African-American experience,” says Paula Williams Madison, consultant and shareholder of The Africa Channel and author of Finding Samuel Lowe, the book on which the film of the same name that premieres on BHM this month is based. “It’s time to expand the conversation and include issues affecting back people worldwide.”

Africa Channel’s focus this year is “Knowing Your Heritage,” she tells Cynopsis. Finding Samuel Lowe, which premiered January 31, is about an African-American woman’s quest to find her Chinese grandfather’s descendants in China. “Our message for Black History Month reminds our viewers that everyone has a story and poses the question, What’s yours?”

A Diverse Field
Like every year, 2016 will see its share of nets that don’t cater specifically to African-American viewers adding their voice to the BHM conversation.

WGN America is once again saluting Black History Month with on-air programming featuring diverse themes and actors, in addition to programming all year round that features diverse talent both on-camera and behind-the-scenes. From February 15-19, the net will host a marathon of syndicated series In the Heat of the Night, which provides a glimpse at life in the “new South” and tackles relevant issues of the day. WGN America also will air first looks at its new original series Underground, from exec producer John Legend and creators/exec producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. The show follows the revolutionaries of the Underground Railroad and has its official premiere March 9. Series star Jurnee Smollett-Bell is participating in Macy’s Black History Month celebrations, leading a panel discussion in a number of cities on the influence and impact of black culture on all facets of American life.

getTV is honoring the month with Monday night primetime tributes to African American icons including Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross via programming that showcases their work and interviews. A Sidney Poitier Birthday Block will air on February 19.

Smithsonian Channel and Major League Baseball are teaming to tell the stories of four baseball players who left legacies as true American icons: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams. Major League Legends will premiere over four consecutive Monday nights beginning February 29 at 8p with a special Black History Month presentation of the Hank Aaron story.

Even younger viewers are getting a window to explore black history. Disney Channel on February 1 premiered a new segment in its Be Inspired interstitial series featuring actor Cameron Boyce (Gamer’s Guide To Pretty Much Everything) detailing his personal connection to The Clinton 12 – the African-American teens who were first to integrate a public school in the South in 1956.

As Bounce TV tee’s up a roster of historically significant movies including Amistad, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Color Purple and Men of Honor, “We’re delighted when the country joins us in focusing on the contributions of African Americans during February,” says Douglass.

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