HOW OPEN TV BEGAN: AN INTRODUCTION FROM CREATOR AYMAR JEAN CHRISTIAN
Three years ago I moved to Chicago to start an exciting new job as a professor at Northwestern University. I was scared. I didn’t know many people in the city and was not used to going out. While in grad school in Philadelphia, I mostly stayed in, kept sane by TV and frequent visits from my partner, who lived in New York. I got a lot of work done: over 400 articles on my blog Televisual and venues like Indiewire and Tubefilter, mostly essays and reports on web TV; six peer-reviewed scholarly articles on television and video production and politics; one 12-episode comedy web series and several passable documentary shorts; many conference presentations and a few research and curatorial fellowships.
Having little or no life outside of work and TV helped me snag a rare and competitive tenure-track job in academia. When I got to Chicago I realized I was too focused on work and forgot about community, that is to say, being a part of your city and your people. Most of my friends were graduate students, and I didn’t know Philly too well. I didn’t want to make the same mistake in Chicago, so I started going to where I felt most at home, where people affirmed my identity as a gay black man. I went to performance art events, film screenings, discussions and lectures on culture and politics, and, most important, nightlife events with diverse gay and queer artists and partygoers. I could shake off stress dancing to house, hip hop and calypso. I could discuss important political issues and cultural events. Chicago welcomed me, a social newbie, with open arms.
I learned why everyone loves Chicago, even though you don’t want to leave home half the year. Slip on extra layers, lace up boots and trudge through icy sidewalks and across snowy banks and people appreciate the effort. For every time I slipped on ice running to make a performance, I made twice the connections to talented creative people.
But the season takes it toll. During the day I started doing yoga at a friend’s apartment, partly to meet new people and partly to keep my body healthy since I was inside all day writing. Yoga was invigorating. I started to do poses at home alone. I could never remember the sequences, but I wasn’t inspired by the tutorials I saw online. Instead I started to dance alone like when I was a kid, using basic poses to stretch after warming up my body. It wasn’t very scientific. Yet I was intrigued by the connection between yoga and my dancing, inspired by my mom’s praise dancing and vogue I saw in Chicago’s queer nightlife.
“Nupita Obama Creates Vogua,” the first episode of Open TV Presents, was born. Below is a tease of Nupita Obama Creates Vogua (watch the pilot here) with one of the three gifted leads, Erik Wallace, who co-stars with similarly gifted artists Kiam Marcelo Junio and Saya Naomi. I met Erik as a host and performer at parties and art events in Chicago. I’m so excited to have the chance to share her talent with the world:
I want to share what inspired this site: art, community, and the pursuit of wellness. All the stars and some of the crew for Nupita Obama Creates Vogua are artists I met in Chicago. Once I saw them on screen I realized how enriched I felt seeing art true to my life, my love of performance and my love of the brilliant black, brown, femme, queer and trans artists who showed me the power of self-care, community and creative experiences undiluted by commercial imperative.
At Open TV we are developing television from innovative artists who perform live or live lives different from what most Americans see on television. We want to inspire people not to binge television but ingest well-crafted bits and leave their homes to get more, support and connect with artists in the city after seeing stories online.
We all need to feel connection, and we use media to connect with people like us. But how do we meet and support people unlike us?
Art bridges divides, but markets need intermediaries to supply and categorize art for consumers. That’s where distribution is important. TV distributors – cable operators and networks -- have not supported minority artists or their communities.
We want to fill the void. By focusing on and empowering artists but developing work for diverse communities, Open TV functions as an incubator alerting networks, curators, agents and other independent artists of talent they may be overlooking.
WHY TV ISN'T OPEN -- YET
Today we pay for hundreds of TV channels, populated by thousands of series. Isn’t TV already open?
Most Americans pay cable operators over $60 a month for what used to be free. For this price they receive poor customer service from providers, who split our fees with major networks like ESPN, AMC, even broadcasters like CBS. Networks generate billions in revenue each year from our subscription fees, except we can’t choose what to subscribe, and they’re raising fees by threatening to pull their channels from cable. The channel boom has been very profitable for major networks, but not for anyone already shut out of distribution. Companies like Comcast are required by law to provide space to minority-owned networks, but they have not accommodated minority-owned independents, preventing whole communities from raising the capital necessary to finance and produce their own stories.
Of course, the high cost of cable pays for a lot of channels and programming options. So why is nothing good ever on?
Most of it is reality television. Reality TV is cheaply produced under poor working conditions: performers and workers get paid little or nothing with no benefits, no protection from discrimination, no guarantees of safety, and -- most importantly -- no creative control of their stories, unlike the union-backed writers for glossier comedies and dramas. For years reports have found conditions on some productions as close to torture. Meanwhile, the stories we get from reality TV are basic. They reduce people to stereotypes and art to competition.
Broadcast and cable channels sometimes invest in quality storytelling, but according to the Writers Guild, not fairly or efficiently. Produced in full, in advance, without audience input, most new shows fail. This makes networks conservative in what they decide to develop. The bulk of existing series do not reflect the diversity of America. Of all showrunners and executive producers -- the people in charge of crafting and profiting from TV narratives -- just 5.5% are minorities and 15% are women. Employment for women and minorities have barely increased in 15 years and lag far behind full representation – women comprise over half the country but only 29% of writers; minorities constitute almost 40% of America but only 14% of all writers. Black writers have had it the hardest, with employment flat since the 1990s, when the Big Four broadcast networks used black viewership to keep ratings stable while the country transitioned to cable and digital.
Now broadcast networks are finding success with diverse comedies and dramas, but only after years of neglect. Plus, history tells us series about minorities are limited in how sincerely they can portray non-mainstream experiences on mainstream networks. Decades of research from universities, guilds and advocacy groups demonstrate how and why TV studios and distributors marginalize the majority of Americans on camera and behind it. The University of California—Los Angeles’ Bunche Center releases a clear and comprehensive report every year. The University of Southern California has started an initiative for it.
You can see the problem in what stories TV networks invest in and promote. Cheap reality series about people who aren’t straight, white and male greatly outnumber scripted series about them, because serial and episodic narratives are a bigger investment for networks. Comedies and dramas are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of original shows released each year. Cable channels geared toward women and minorities like BET and Logo have smaller budgets for original programming and release much fewer series. Most of them are reality shows. All this limits the range of representations for artists and TV fans. For fans it limits the range of stories we need to start deep and meaningful conversations about culture. It aggravates creators of TV shows by shouldering them with great burdens of representing the under-represented.
The American media system is complex. It’s not all bad or good. Seeing ratings decline on broadcast and flat-line on cable, networks from ABC to Fox are pursuing diversity more aggressively. With hope, we will see America on screen. But we know corporations always find it hard to keep it real.
That’s where you come in.
Help us keep it real! We need you to help us think through how TV is opening up to new experiences but also how we can push it further, to be more honest and aware of the depth and range of talent in our communities.
HOW INDIES ARE OPENING TV
Thankfully we have the Internet. As cable television undervalues us, we can use open access to distribution to show our own vision of television.
Creators of web series -- or as I like to call it, indie TV -- inspired my dissertation and first manuscript on how independent storytelling released on the web is an innovation in television production and distribution. As I recently wrote for the University of California—Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Center, Internet distribution fundamentally changes TV development. I’m currently revising the dissertation into a book, so you’ll have to wait to read the full case, but I’ve written a chapter in James Bennett and Niki Strange’s collection Media Independence you can download, exploring how and why indie web series address flaws in corporate TV series development.
Since 2009 I have tracked how black, Asian American, GLBT, and Latin@ producers created original comedies and dramas written to address the specificities of their experiences. Creators made shows across genres from sitcoms and vlogs to fantasies and thrillers. Series represented the diversity within communities as well, so I saw not only black romantic comedy and family series but romantic and family comedies about black lesbians, black gay men, black transgender individuals, black geeks and nerds, black athletes and hustlers. Asian American leads were not confined to nerdy model minorities but had diverse interests and politics. Series about Latinos recognized the cultural and linguistic differences within a constructed American identity. I noticed producers develop passionate fan bases from black women to nerd girls, Asian gamers to gay men, from Brooklyn to LA, people like: Issa Rae (Awkward Black Girl, Insecure), Felicia Day (The Guild, Geek & Sundry), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), Adam Goldman (The Outs, Whatever this is), Amy York Rubin (Little Horribles, Barnacle Studios) Numa Perrier, Jeanine Daniels and Dennis Dortch (Black & Sexy TV), Christin Mell, Jessica King and Julie Keck (tello films), Rebecca Odes and Jill Soloway (Wifey TV) and Freddie Wong (RocketJump). Many of these creators also started distribution platforms: Rae started Color Creative and is developing pilots from writers of color, Day sold her YouTube network for Geek & Sundry to Legendary Pictures.
In my work I noticed indie TV series work best as launching pads for creative talent -- the series creators, writers and actors who craft stories for communities. These artists create space for under-represented TV fans to see themselves and sometimes parlay fan attention into recognition from the industry.
Diverse television is nourishing, promoting cultural wellness to under-served audiences. But indie audiences online are isolated from peers and kin. Platforms for black people often lack shows for black gays or queers. Platforms for gay men exclude lesbians. Platforms for women under-serve Latinas and Asian Americans.
We want to create a space for diverse artists and audiences to come together. We need a more open vision of what TV could be. How beautiful, strange and honest could TV be if it reflected the fluidity of life in America?
HOW OPEN TV INTERVENES
Open TV intervenes by bringing diverse arts and audiences together to pilot original stories and the platform for their distribution.
TV needs soul and Soul! inspired Open TV. Soul! premiered after black urban rebellions in 1960s alerted mainstream media, non-profits and local governments to the lack of black representation on television. As scholars Devorah Heitner and Gayle Wald have studied, Soul! featured in-depth conversations with artists, scholars and community leaders, alongside performances of dance, music, poetry and other arts. It provided an important forum for black people to come together around shared and shifting social and political circumstances. When I first saw Soul! I was blown away by beautiful and sincere it was, and how gripping such honest TV could be.
Soul! is our goal. Open TV follows Soul!’s art- and community-focused mission, but we are open to all artists and independent producers creating beautiful and sincere stories under-represented on TV. We believe television is an art but must also showcase different types of art outside of the competition formats we see on reality TV. We are committed to developing work from artists most often left out of commercial production: queer, trans, and cis-women and people of color.
All Open TV artists keep their intellectual property and distribution agreements are non-exclusive. This ensures when we develop programs we are focusing on the artist’s voice and value. Artists can produce with us and, after we premiere it, they can show or sell it elsewhere. We believe authenticity cannot be bought and culture should be as free as is sustainable.
Open TV will grow slowly. Artful stories are difficult to finance and coordinate. We have a small amount of start-up financing and a growing track record obtaining grants. Still, Open TV is in beta. We are developing new works, but we are also in development.
We will premiere one program after another. Every month an original episode or series will premiere on one of our three content verticals:
Open TV Presents, a series of experimental pilots about artists exploring alternative relationships.
Open TV Re-Presents, re-releasing complete or director’s cuts of existing series.
Open TV Originals, wholly produced scripted and reality series.
In the beta stage Open TV will function more like a digital indie music label start-up or band than a TV network: releasing work for free from a select group of artists who reflect our values and aesthetics. We are not focused on “scale” and “big data” but rather on showcasing exceptional artists who have earned a few minutes of your time online or live.
From March 11th until June 3rd we will be premiering episodes of the first Open TV Original, You’re So Talented, created by Sam Bailey. You can watch the first episode right here:
Over the next few weeks you will see more meticulously crafted glimpses into Bea’s life, right here, and even on screens in Chicago! On WeAreOpen.TV you’ll also meet the artists, crew and organizations who made and helped make this happen. We’re planning for a second season, and we hope to open up production to many more!
There’s much more development! We’ll announce every production when it happens, sometimes before.
WE ARE ALL OPEN TV
This site, home of Open TV Community, is as important as the videos we release. Here we will present all original programming. We will also release behind-the-scenes information to give you a clearer sense of how even small projects involve complex collaborations. We’ll have a calendar of events where you can see Open TV artists and allies in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. We’ll spotlight the people and organizations that create and support our productions. We’ll publish provocative essays from scholars, artists, activists and critics about media and culture.
We’ll be relying on diverse forms of financing, primarily non-profit grants. Our start-up funds come from Northwestern. We are a research project experimenting with media distribution, production and consumption. WeAreOpen.TV will provide a site to understand the dynamics of releasing independent productions through global networks. Everything on the site is data for developing best practices and deeper understanding of the value of production created by those historically and currently excluded from mass distribution. Participation on WeAreOpen.TV will serve as data to help us understand new media distribution. We do not collect, publish or share identifying information. All research will be summarized and, as often as allowed, re-published on WeAreOpen.TV, where you can write and we can respond to your comments, questions and critiques.
If you’re reading this in early 2015, congrats! You’ve stumbled on a new experiment in television. Please forgive we’re not running 100%. We’re a long way from full capacity. Lucky for you, you can help us grow!
There are so many ways to get involved, and they’re pretty easy.
If you’re interested in joining our productions, send us your information! While we are already in development on a number of projects, each is in process and can change shape with the right talent. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re just curious what we might cook up, like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram or Twitter. When you see something curious, delightful, or horrifying on this site, comment! We read all the comments and want your input to help us develop. If you see something you like, share it! Whatever you say, please share it.
WE ARE A TEAM
Aymar Jean Christian, Head of Development
Open TV beta is conceived by Aymar Jean Christian, tenure-track assistant professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. He received his PhD in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania and his BA in American Culture from the University of Michigan.
I have researched web series, or, independent television, since 2009. As part of this research I have watched and written about hundreds of series and interviewed over 130 producers, published in academic journals and venues like The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Indiewire. My forthcoming manuscript, Open TV, theorizes indie TV as a space of innovation where producers, fans and brands pilot new shows for an open network, in response to traditional networks’ closed development process. This research included ethnographic participation, attending and consulting various festival and award shows – including the Tribeca Film Festival, Peabody Awards, International Press Academy, International Academy of Web Television and Streamy Awards. As a doctoral student I also curated short and feature-length art and independent films for the Philadelphia Museum of Art as fellow in the education department.
I am also a creative producer. As a student learning how to film, I wrote, directed and edited three episodes of series called MEET, about a man and woman trying to meet up in-person after chatting online for weeks. I also shot and edited a number of documentaries, all uploaded to Vimeo, including a feature-length documentary on transgressive artists with University of Pennsylvania professor of visual communication Paul Messaris; a short on Philadelphia celebrity Arthur Kade; a short on an art party in New Haven; and several videos for a fashion conference at Yale, the latter two events produced by Yale PhD (American Studies) and Kings College fellow (English) Madison Moore.
My collaboration with Under the Spell Productions, a 501c3 organization dedicated to producing and developing new work for diverse artists and audiences, began with the web-series She’s Out of Order. Conceived by Teresa Michelle Lasley, directed by Rhonney Greene and written by Derek McPhatter, She’s Out of Order follows a black female journalist struggling to “keep it cute” amid life’s personal and professional disruptions. I co-produced the project, advising on the creative direction and scope, securing production resources, and helping develop the audience development strategy. Shot in Philadelphia across the city and at the University of Pennsylvania, She’s Out of Order found a niche audience of mostly black women and a non-exclusive distribution deal with an indie start-up, ClickFlick. In 2015 the series is an official selection of LA Web Fest, one of the longest-running independent television festivals, with creator Teresa Lasley nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and LaJune Grant nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress.
Stephanie Jeter, Head of Production
Stephanie Jeter is a filmmaker residing in Chicago, Illinois. She has spent the past seven years working behind the scenes on various film and TV projects including Shameless, SIRENS, and Insurgent. She graduated with the help of a writing scholarship from DePaul University where she studied digital cinema. She is currently developing a short film, Searching for Isabelle, and is finalizing several feature-length scripts. She comes to Open TV with both the practical knowledge of working on professional productions (big and small), and a desire to grow independently.
ELI McKinnon, Head of social media & Design
Elijah McKinnon is a digital strategist and marketing maven. He has spent the past three years consulting with various brands and organizations including UBER, Steven Alan and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. He graduated at the top of his class from the Art Institute of California - San Francisco where he studied Marketing and Management with an emphasis in digital strategy and brand marketing. He currently volunteers at CreativeMornings and Canvas Chicago. He comes to Open TV with both the strategic knowledge of launching community based initiatives (large and small), and a passion to create and sustain independent platforms.