Finding a Niche
Showtime's Greenblatt has a special feel for black-themed shows
By Kevin Downey -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
Robert Greenblatt isn't on an altruistic mission to become the man behind most television shows for African-Americans.
But as executive producer of minority-themed programs like UPN's Eve and president of entertainment at Showtime Networks since July 2003, that is exactly what he's becoming.
"I've always tried to make it a hallmark of everything I do, whether it's as a producer or at a network, to go for things nobody else is doing," says Greenblatt. "It's a way to get immediate attention and distinguish yourself."
Showtime, which is a premium network, has 12.1 million subscribers; HBO has 27.5 million. But Showtime has set itself apart largely by reaching out to viewers underserved by other cable and broadcast networks. The network's gay-themed Queer as Folk, for example, enters its fifth season next spring, and the lesbian-themed The L Word starts its second season early next year.
Although African-American–targeted shows like drama Soul Food, which finished its five-season run in February, are no longer on the air, Showtime has a slew of black-themed programs in development. Among them is the half-hour sitcom Barbershop, from the producers of the movie franchise of the same name. The show, like the movie, will center on a group of characters in neighborhood barbershops in Chicago.
Other upcoming shows include The Cell, about a black Muslim working for the FBI; Pryor Offenses, a comedy based on the life of comedian Richard Pryor; and the Spike Lee movie Sucker Free City.
"On almost every show, we have a group of black characters," says Greenblatt. "We have a pretty large black audience, so we certainly don't want to tell them that we don't have anything for them anymore."
Greenblatt has reached out to African- Americans and other minority groups for most of his two decades in television.
He got his start at Lorimar Filmed Entertainment and spent eight years as executive vice president of primetime programming at Fox Broadcasting. In 1997, he and David Janollari, who earlier this summer was named entertainment president of The WB, formed Greenblatt Janollari Productions. Together they produced black sitcoms like The Hughleys, which had stints on both ABC and UPN, and UPN's One on One. The two also produced UPN's short-lived African-American drama Platinum, PBS's Latino-themed American Family and HBO's multi-ethnic, multi-sexual Six Feet Under.
Looking to stand out in a sea of TV executives, Greenblatt spied an opportunity in reaching out to minorities. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reports that only 15.5% of TV and film roles went to black actors in 2002. And in the same year, less than half of 227 black actors on the Big Four networks were in lead roles.
But Greenblatt says the relative scarcity of black actors and programs on the broadcast networks isn't due to a lack of interest. Rather, it has to do with a need to draw a big audience.
"I think the networks are genuine in their desire to reach out and put more of these shows on the air," he says. "The problem is that the networks want shows that have a broad appeal. A show that polarizes an audience and is predominantly black, which by definition will have a smaller number, isn't the first thing they'll seek out."
Back in the 1980s, NBC's The Cosby Show dominated prime time, attracting white and black audiences with universal storylines.
But that is increasingly difficult to do as the TV audience scatters to niche networks on cable and broadcast. In an effort to continue reaching a mass audience, the major broadcast networks have largely moved away from shows dominated by minorities toward those with multi-ethnic casts. In fact, while the number of black shows on network TV has hovered around 10 in prime time since the mid 1990s, those with a multi-ethnic cast have quadrupled, to more than 50, according to Initiative, the media-buying agency.
That shift presented an opportunity for smaller networks like UPN and Showtime to build an audience by targeting specific demographics, notably African-Americans.
"You don't have to have 30 million people watching, so you can automatically start looking at smaller groups of the audience," says Greenblatt. "Cable has always embraced everything that's unique, and for Showtime that was a mandate. We're not changing that drastically. We're developing a whole bunch of shows that have black characters and have black people creating the shows."
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