Last year, USA Today ran an article about UPN and, at the time, their four black female executive producers or "showrunners." This season, the grand total is five. It is no secret that UPN, in an effort to establish itself like Fox and the WB before them, has embraced the African American television audience. It is also no secret that the aforementioned networks both loosened that embrace as their white audiences became larger. According to Mark C. Terry, the Chief Financial Officer at Western International Syndication, which distributed It's Showtime at the Apollo for over a decade, this is the way networks like Fox and the WB established themselves. "Clearly," he says, "there's an understanding that there's a market out there that's been underserved. But clearly there's a need and there's an interest on the part of viewers for [shows] targeted towards them." That seems to be the Hollywood formula and at UPN it has been to the benefit of black women working behind the scenes.
"It's hard for any writer to get a show on the air, be it black, white, green or blue. It's just not an easy thing; it's not designed to be easy." -- Eunetta T. BooneAlthough Felicia Henderson, showrunner for Soul Food, had Sister, Sister on the WB and, of course, Winifred Hervey and Debbie Allen had shows on NBC, no network has been as kind to black women as UPN. Currently, Sara Finney-Johnson runs The Parkers, Mara Brock Akil has Girlfriends, Yvette Lee Bowser has Half and Half, Eunetta T. Boone has One on One and, now, Meg DeLoatch has Eve. This is significant since, as Eunetta T. Boone says, "It's hard for any writer to get a show on the air, be it black, white, green or blue. It's just not an easy thing. It's not designed to be easy." For these women, however, the difference has been themselves. Finney-Johnson, who co-created and produced Moesha before The Parkers, gave Akil a writing job. Bowser hired Boone for two shows and DeLoatch worked for Boone on One on One.
DeLoatch says that her experience on One on One, produced by Greenblatt-Janollari, who also produce Eve, directly resulted in getting her own show. "My second year I was co-executive producer," she explains. "I was sort of in a spotlight position. I was given the opportunity to sort of shine and grow. I was very fortunate that it led to an even greater opportunity for me." But it takes more than a good mentor and a solid network to get a show on the air, DeLoatch also stresses that UPN is genuinely supportive of the product she and her peers produce.
"They want us. They support us. They believe in us. They're excited about this show," says DeLoatch of the network. "They have a built in audience who gets what we're talking about, has the same lifestyle, the same points of view we're trying to bring across. It was a really good fit being put in the Monday night lineup. We were given the best time slot on UPN so we feel we are getting a lot of love from them."
But Boone, whose show kicked off the new Tuesday night lineup which includes the Will Smith/Jada Pinkett-Smith-produced hitAll of Us, believes that this is merely coincidence. "I don't even think that they knew they were doing that. I just think it happened. I think one day someone said 'Wow, all the, uh, executive producers here are sisters.' I don't think it was set out to be the network that has black women running shows. I think it sort of happened and it's a wonderful thing."
However, Boone does believe that alternative families are a particular niche UPN is trying to fill. "I think basically what's been going on at UPN," she offers, "and, I don't know if it's conscious or if it's just that's what's been of interest to them, but their shows have leaned more towards alternative families: single mother, single daughter [The Parkers], single father with a daughter [One on One], Half and Half, same father, different mothers, All of Us, with the ex-wife being very involved in the lives of a couple, the shock jock who suddenly becomes a family man [Rock Me Baby], even The Mullets. They all seem to be into alternative family, which is interesting, because the American family has many faces."
African Americans also have many faces so DeLoatch really appreciates her relationship with UPN. "It is nice to have such a range of different characters showing all areas of black life. I think that Girlfriends, for example, highlights the relationship of girl friends as the title says, whereas my show is more about the anatomy of a relationship as well as friendship that's highlighted. Also, male friendships are really important in my show."
Boone says, "I think you can do more shows that are universal in theme but from an African American slant. When you're dealing with a larger network, you have to take more of a universal attitude. Our AIDS show was done with the slant of it's a big problem in the African American community. I think your major networks would steer away from that type of story." That's why Boone, despite interest at ABC, where she once wrote for My Wife and Kids, settled on the network that would definitely air her show.
For DeLoatch, whose first writing job was Family Matters, being at UPN has made more than her dream of having her own show come true. "I've always wanted to write adult comedy," she says. "I just think that there is a lot of fun writing about this time in my life and getting to share it in my point of view. You know, I don't have a family and even though I certainly appreciate family comedy, this is where I am in life so it is really cool to write about it."
Hip hop has clearly been an important force in the American marketplace. Boone says, "I think that any time you are dealing with a show with teens, you can't ignore the hip hop movement because this is how they dress, this is how they talk, this is how they listen to what they listen to. It's fun. I think it's as influential as the '60s and '70s were on television, at least for us."
More importantly, the inclusion of urban culture has broad appeal, especially on One on One. "We do a much more urban show, I know a lot of people hate the word 'urban,' but we appeal to life as a teenager in the city and those who would love to know what that's like," says Boone. "Our show is very current in its music choices and its dialogue but yet we try to keep it from being too colloquial and [keep it] very universal. Our show is appealing to teens so that means that there are a lot of young white girls watching our show and our guess is it is probably akin to the demographic of the number of young, white men who listen to rap. It's a curiosity about what we do and how we live. I think you see a little bit more of that."
And this reality is not necessarily one that major networks thrive on. "With our show, if we were on a larger network," notes Boone, "we could probably do the same show. [Last season] Kyla had a boyfriend that was of another color but we never pointed to it. But I think it would be a little bit more of a Benetton ad if we were on a major network." Instead, these days, UPN's "black shows" are becoming a little more than a rainbow of colors but, rather, an important step toward a more diverse slice of black life.
Chicago native Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer currently living in Atlanta, Georgia.