NEW YORK — Four TV and web series that explode myths, expose hidden trauma and empower the black community moved a big step closer to the small screen after taking home $50,000 to $150,000 in prize money for pilot development from the National Black Programming Consortium’s inaugural Pitch Black event April 23.
Panels of judges selected the projects, which focus on topics such as black fathers, surfers in Senegal, Detroit high-schoolers and mental illness tinged with the supernatural, after a day of pitches by eight finalists in a new incubator, NBPC 360. Winners were evaluated on technical and artistic merit, social and cultural relevance, creative team and compatibility with PBS at a time when the network is exploring ways to attract a younger and more diverse audience.
These projects “will bring vitally needed fresh perspectives and new voices to public media [and] vibrant, engaging stories about the black experience to American audiences,” said NBPC Executive Director Leslie Fields-Cruz.
- My Africa Is, a television documentary series from Nosarieme Garrick and Hassatou Diallo, which tells dynamic and diverse stories of African youth culture that challenge tired stereotypes of the African continent;
- Street Cred, by Sultan Sharrief and Oren Goldenberg, a reality television show following 12 Detroit high school students who master tasks in entertainment production to win internships on the set of a feature film;
- Pixie Dust from Damon Colquhoun and Shertease Wheeler, a scripted web series that is an urban fantasy about a magical 13-year-old girl and her mentally ill mother; and
- POPS by Garland McLaurin and Jason Samuels, a documentary web series that explores and celebrates black fatherhood, attempting to reframe media focus on the absence of black men in their children’s lives.
Each team will use its prize money to produce pilots over the next six months with the help of an executive producer or producing TV station. Then, with NBPC’s support, they’ll pursue broadcast and distribution opportunities.
Projects were selected by two panels of industry professionals. TV and broadcast judges were Kathryn Lo of PBS, director of program development, independent film and the syndicated service PBS Plus; filmmaker Llewellyn Smith of Vital Pictures in Boston; and Liz Cheng, g.m. of WGBH-TV. Judging the web portion of the competition were Karim Ahmad, senior digital content strategist for Independent Television Service; Nicole Eley-Carr, PBS senior manager of digital content strategy and partnerships; and filmmaker and producer Topper Carew, currently a visiting researcher/scholar at MIT Media Lab.
The event, at the Greene Space in New York Public Radio’s headquarters, drew top executives from CPB, PBS, the World channel, ITVS, POV and WNET as well as representatives from HBO, A&E, Fox, BET, Tribeca All Access and Third World Newsreel.
Fields-Cruz described Pitch Black as more than a financing tool. It’s about developing partnerships and connections, she said, and “investing in the long-term success of these talented media makers so the world we live in is reflected both in front of and behind the camera.”
With My Africa Is, Garrick, who is from Nigeria, and Diallo, from Guinea, introduce viewers “to the Africa we know,” where vibrant and innovative youth culture across 54 countries upends the threadbare African narrative of “violence, poverty and safari.”
The two needed $250,000 for a pilot shot in Nairobi and $2.6 million for a series of eight half-hour broadcast episodes. They’re targeting a global audience ages 15 to 35.
Street Cred, which had already raised $60,000, needed another $215,000 for a pilot and $1.8 million for 13 episodes of a reality show that creator Sharrief described as a cross between The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice, with a public broadcasting twist.
The kids he casts have tough lives, he said, “but don’t pity them. They’re strong. They have all these skills, patience, persistence, determination, management, organization, conflict resolution. The show translates these innate abilities into a professional context and showcases their power.”
He’s aiming for young viewers ages 13 to 30 and women ages 35 to 60.
Lo liked the injection of straight-up reality programming in Street Cred, noting that PBS doesn’t do much of that. “We call it reality-esque,” she said.
Executives and producers in the room also welcomed the sole scripted offering, the web series Pixie Dust, to a network where original American drama is scarce.
“We’ve been running focus groups on innovative ways to move forward, and this is exactly what we’re talking about,” said Lesley Norman, production executive at New York’s WNET.
Pixie Dust sought $215,000 for a first season of 10 five-minute episodes following an intense, mystical mother-daughter relationship, targeting women ages 16 to 36.
“We need to get more people in the black community aware of mental illness. We need to get more people in the black community to a therapist,” said Colquhoun, getting a big laugh from the mostly African-American crowd.
“There’s a large audience that won’t watch a documentary because it feels like taking their medicine,” Ahmad said. “But they will watch something like this.”
And web series POPS showcases socioeconomically diverse black men raising children “in a society that has low expectations for black fathers and families,” said creator McLaurin. “It’s a large population that has been demonized or ignored.”
The show has partnered with Black Male Engagement, a national support network, and also wants to create an online web portal for black fathers.
“It’s not just a show, it’s a movement,” Carew said.
McLaurin was looking for $250,000 for 21 short episodes, seven each to follow three dads.
The four other projects in competition included Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project, an interactive medley about the largely forgotten Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., in the first half of the 1900s; Chronicle, an online animated graphic novel following the adventures of black historical figures; The Life’s Essentials Docu-Series, a TV show where celebrities and everyday Americans engage with older relatives; and The Newark Project, a television series about that troubled city’s school reform.
An encouraging reception from the crowd augured well that some of these would find backers as well.
NBPC’s Fields-Cruz said her Harlem-based nonprofit had already decided to back three of the eight projects regardless of who won. Cheng was scoping out content for WGBH’s World channel. Ingrid Kopp, director of digital initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute, urged presenters to apply for grants before Tribeca’s current funding round closes May 12.
NBPC 360 is partnering with lead station WNET, WTTW in Chicago, WYES in New Orleans, KQED in San Francisco, WGBH/World, American Public Television, National Minority Consortia, South Carolina’s ETV network, BritDoc, POV, ITVS, IFP Made in New York, Tribeca Film Institute, NYC Media, PGA Diversity and Silicon Harlem.
The incubator program opened last October with a call for submissions, which generated 163 entries. Then came a weekly webinar series on the video business and a live-stream event about trends in public television.
Eight finalists were invited to join the incubator, a mentored six-week intensive boot camp with hands-on training and preparation for the pitch and pilot phase, culminating in Pitch Black.
Mentors included Phil Berelsen (POPS), Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson (Street Cred), Gaynelle Evans (My Africa Is), Terence Hance (Pixie Dust), Thomas Allen Harris and Don Perry (The Life’s Essentials Docu-Series), Arthur Jaffa (Pixie Dust, Chronicle), Louis Messiah (Black Broadway on U) and Sam Pollard (The Newark Project).
“May we always be here for you,” said Fields-Cruz after announcing the winners. “May we always create dynamic content. May we always pitch black. And let the money flow.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the focus of the episodes of POPS.
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