Finding a Niche

Showtime's Greenblatt has a special feel for black-themed shows
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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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