Black syndie first

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Connection III Entertainment Corp. plans to launch the first nationally syndicated African American drama series in television history.
“What About Your Friends?” follows the friendship and tribulations of three African American teen-age girls.
Providing original syndicated programming to underserved multicultural markets is Connection III’s goal. At the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in January, the Los Angeles-based production company said “What About Your Friends?” which was originally broadcast in 1999 as a one-hour after school special, will air once more as a one-hour special in the second quarter of 2001, followed by a 13-week mini-season of original episodes in the fall.
Cleveland O’Neal, president and CEO of Connection III, believes “What About Your Friends?” is touching a chord in part because it is the first African American teen drama series of its kind. “I know the networks are not providing an African American `Party of Five’ or `Dawson’s Creek,”’ he said. The show has already won an NAACP Image Award and received two Emmy nominations.
In conjunction with Baruch Entertainment, Mr. O’Neal has sealed several deals to air the special in the second quarter of 2001. Participating stations include KYW-TV Philadelphia, KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, Chicago’s WPWR-TV and WDWB-TV in Detroit. Mr. O’Neal expects most of the stations that air the special to pick up the series as well, but those deals are still in negotiation.
Carolyn Worford, program director for WDWB, said the quality of “What About Your Friends?” attracted her to the program. “Because this is an urban market, we always look at productions with ethnicity to them,” she said. “It’s a beautifully crafted show. It’s a piece of the real world that’s not a documentary. … I thought, `My daughter would sit down and watch this. She could relate to what those girls were going through.’ If [producers] continue with that thinking and remember who the audience is, it should be a successful hour drama.”
Applying general market successes to niche markets is Connection III’s strategy. For example, its version of the Olsen Twins franchise is a multicultural children’s series called “The Garage Club,” which can be seen on Fox Family Channel and on video. Slated for launch late this year is “Urban Flix,” essentially a multicultural version of “Entertainment Tonight.”
Since most of today’s minority-focused shows are half-hour comedies or variety shows, “the African American consumer is starved for this kind of programming,” Mr. O’Neal said.
Connection III aims to satisfy those needs. Mr. O’Neal said he’s unaware of any competitors syndicating original programs for multicultural audiences.
Building on Connection III’s offerings is where its new executive vice president of development and production comes in. Brian O’Neal-Cleveland O’Neal’s brother-recently joined the company after several years in charge of children and family television at CBS.
“The network perspective that I bring is that you don’t make a show people don’t want. You ask, `What do you need?”’ said Brian O’Neal. “People tell you, `I have advertisers who would like a program like this.’ Then you say, `OK, I see the flavor, or let me invent that flavor.”’
Though children’s programming will remain his primary focus, Mr. O’Neal said his future could include reality shows, magazine shows or game shows. He’s also thinking beyond individual series or specials. “The first rung in the ladder is to get a foothold in the syndication market. Then what hopefully could happen is that we can get into something like a three-hour block of programming,” he said.
The O’Neals reiterated that their goal is to provide quality entertainment to currently underserved minority markets. Media attention about the lack of minorities on TV isn’t enough to fully serve these communities, they said.
“When the cry went out, the immediate reaction was to change the presented image. That meant to find a lot of actors of color and get them on the screen,” Brian O’Neal said. “But in terms of really connecting, that means getting people of color behind the scenes … into decision-making positions.”
The people at Connection III believe they can best overcome obstacles by staying aware of the challenges minorities face.
“Minority programmers are often forced by the general market to find alternative ways to bring our programs to the consumer,” Cleveland O’Neal said. “The biggest hurdle is always going to be the recognition of consumer need and convincing local stations and national advertisers to support that need.”