Black History Month: Stories Told in Mixed Media

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

Supplementing their televised lineups with feature-packed Web sites and video-on-demand, networks such as HBO, PBS and the History Channel are ensuring that viewers have nearly 24 hours of relevant programming to choose from every day during Black History Month. From 30-second vignettes to four-part specials, a learning experience is a remote click or mouse click away.

At the broadcast networks, local affiliates schedule special content around each net’s prime-time lineup, producing celebratory commercials, news featurettes and other programming tailored to their specific regions.

Viewers can pick and choose when to watch a number of HBO’s black history-themed original movies, such as “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” and “The Tuskegee Airmen,” on HBO On Demand. Showtime is televising its 15th annual Black Filmmaker Showcase, featuring seven shorts by up-and-coming black filmmakers. Comedy Central is blasting off with “Galaxy of the Black Stars.” BET will televise its annual “Celebration of Gospel” event Feb. 23. Court TV has produced vignettes about Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and the celebration of black American history.

The annual February observance celebrating the history and achievements of black Americans became a monthlong commemoration in 1976. It has become both a natural showcase for historical, educational and multicultural entertainment and a time for networks to reassert their year-round commitment to diversity. While excitement about specialized programming is high, the networks are also hoping that star power, effective storytelling and varied subject matter will attract demographically varied audiences.

This year the rollout of specials has been accompanied by aggressive marketing strategies and a pervasive Internet presence. The four-part PBS series “African American Lives” benefited from a combination of both, premiering Feb. 1 with a strong 2.5 household rating in metered markets, according to Nielsen Media Research overnight data. The series, from Thirteen/WNET New York and Kunhardt Productions, traces the genealogy and ancestry of nine accomplished black Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and music mogul Quincy Jones, through DNA testing, oral histories and other methods. While it is the centerpiece program of PBS’s Black History Month lineup, PBS and sponsors Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola have been promoting the series as one of PBS’s yearly highlights.

“It’s a real privilege to have a series like this on our air,” said Jacoba Atlas, senior VP and co-chief of programming for PBS. “I think it’s exactly what PBS is supposed to do and can do. It combines the mission to illuminate and engage with a real history lesson.”

The multimillion-dollar production, hosted by Harvard University Chair of African American Studies Henry Louis Gates Jr., is one of a handful of specials that PBS is using its limited advertising budget to extensively promote in 2006. PBS executives were willing to bet that the combination of emotional, personal stories and scientific analysis found in “African American Lives” would capture viewers’ attention.

“When we started doing screenings, we just got visceral reactions,” Ms. Atlas said. “It makes you think about your own family, no matter what your particular ethnicity is.”

Sponsors Speak Out

The production marks the first time Procter & Gamble has sponsored a national public television program. Anne Sempowski Ward, director of multicultural business development for the company, compared “African American Lives” to the epic miniseries “Roots” in its ability to educate and tug at heartstrings. “What was really powerful is how these stories are able to literally bring out years of emotions people have from not knowing who their ancestors are or where they came from,” she said. “We really looked at this as an opportunity to have every medium represented in terms of not only our partnership but, more importantly, the program.”

P&G featured a write-up about the show in its first BrandSaver mailer of the year, which reaches 55 million households nationwide. The company also produced commercials for eight of its brands, including Folgers, Crest and Tide, featuring black poets reading their own work about life and what it means to be black in America.

Coca-Cola, which has worked with PBS in the past, was also drawn to “African American Lives” from both a marketing and a personal standpoint. “It’s the whole idea behind connections,” said Media Relations Director Mart Martin. “Coca-Cola wants to be a part of those moments where people connect. … This particular program allows consumers to connect, but in a different way. They’re connecting with their past, and we want to be a part of those moments. You could just tell this one was going to be special.”

The company was able to use “African American Lives” as a platform on which to build a Black History Month promotion, running a sweepstakes in collaboration with Ancestors.com in which the winner received a trip to the country of his or her ancestors. Coca-Cola also co-hosted screenings of the show with Georgia Public Broadcasting and WPBA-TV in Atlanta.

PBS’s overall commitment to diversified programming appealed to the sponsors too.

“Certainly we at P&G believe in what Black History Month stands for: the encouragement, celebration and preservation of African American contributions and culture,” Ms. Sempowski Ward said. “But it’s also important to have a celebration every month, and that’s what our objective is.”

P&G and Coca-Cola are also sponsors of the “African American Lives” Web site, part of PBS.org, which features tips on preserving family heritage, a genealogy guide, educational resources and background information on the series.

“It’s a great resource for bringing in a whole new generation,” Ms. Atlas said. “We really see ourselves not so much as a broadcaster and then we have a Web site. It’s one entity now.”

The History Channel is another educational entertainment stalwart featuring a variety of Black History Month resources online. History.com promotes the network’s programming and acts as an independent research site, with video clips, speech transcripts, civil rights history and a host of other material.

Like PBS, History Channel is spotlighting a particular show this month: “Honor Deferred,” which was scheduled to premiere Feb. 11. The special, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, focuses on black World War II soldiers who were not awarded the Medals of Honor they had earned. A federal investigation was launched and seven men finally received their medals in 1997.

Red Lobster is sponsoring “Honor Deferred” and is one of History Channel’s major advertisers throughout the month. “An important segment of their customer base is the African American segment,” said Brian Granath, VP of ad sales for the History Channel, “so they take advantage of our scheduling of these types of programs that honor Black History Month.”

“We’re not just linear on-air TV,” he said. “We’re getting creative, using online, VOD, broadband and all that. Depending on what the needs of the advertiser are and the kind of messaging they want to do, we can offer all these different pieces of the puzzle.”

History Channel has an almost daily lineup of special programming this month, including the Feb. 19 world premiere of “First to Fight: The Black Tankers of World War II” and repeat documentaries on slave resistance, the Underground Railroad and George Washington Carver. Comedic actor Bernie Mac will appear in vignettes throughout the month, introducing shows and talking about black history.

Running Year-Round

Charlie Maday, History Channel’s director of programming, points out that many of these shows will run all year.

“All of our key shows are trying to bring new information-that’s what we’re trying to do all of the time,” he said. “People at large look to us to bring this kind of material to them
. I think something like ‘Honor Deferred’ could be the kind of thing that could appeal to a wide range of people.”

Nickelodeon is celebrating Black History Month online, and all year as well. A number of interstitial shorts will run throughout the month, featuring the tagline “My History, My Future” with teens discussing pride, leadership, self-esteem, faith and compassion. The shorts will also be available on TurboNick, Nick.com’s broadband platform.

The network is televising two new “Nick News Burps” featuring Linda Ellerbee-one on Rosa Parks, the other on the Apollo Theater in New York. Nickelodeon is repeating several “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” specials, including one that traces the roots and evolution of the celebration, titled “Do We Need Black History Month?” “Kids have an immediate radar that can detect when you’re not being authentic, and Linda has an amazing ability to tell very relevant stories in a very kid-friendly way,” said Pete Danielsen, senior VP of programming for Nickelodeon.

NickJr.com is featuring a special Nick Jr. Video playlist of “Little Bill” episodes and family-friendly shorts with story lines such as a little girl and her grandfather sharing a favorite song.

Mr. Danielsen said Nickelodeon’s programming this month will be just as applicable to its audience all year and that the shorts in particular will be shown at other times. “We do single out this month to celebrate with everyone else, but we also try very hard to create a diverse environment every day of the year,” he said.

ESPN is focusing much of its attention this month on a unique event-a restaging of a 1940s-era Negro League baseball game that will be televised live Feb. 26 on ESPN Classic.

Baseball legend and former Birmingham (Ala.) Black Baron Willie Mays will attend the game between the Barons and the Bristol (Conn.) Barnstormers. Former minor leaguers and college players will don retro jerseys and use equipment from the ’40s. “For us that’s really the headlining act [of the month], so we’re really excited about that,” said Doug White, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions.

The network is also bringing back for the third year its series of 30-second vignettes highlighting athletes’ contributions to their community. The series, sponsored by Heineken, is called “This Is How We Lift Our World” and will include spots with Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams and Derek Jeter.

“We like to take the time out to highlight this month in particular,” Mr. White said. “We’re all about serving all fans no matter what walk of life they’re from, and this is just another way to do that.

“That’s the great thing about sports-[diversity] is woven into this business.”