EVANSTON, Ill. --– Frustrated by the lack of diversity on commercial television, Northwestern University’s Aymar Jean Christian launched a platform to develop work from queer, transgender, women of color and other artists typically left out of mainstream production.
Called Open TV beta, the incubator is now both an experiment in community-based Web distribution for indie arts and artists and a research project by Christian, an assistant professor of communication at Northwestern's School of Communication.
“Networks failed to realize they forgot to make shows for almost half the country,” Christian said of television programming throughout most of the early 21st century. On the rare occasion they do, “they tend to normalize these typically marginalized characters for fear of losing advertisers and a mass audience,” he said.
The project is designed to challenge the traditional method for developing television shows, collect media research data and showcase a typically overlooked population in a more nuanced light.
Open TV allows artists keep their intellectual property, and distribution agreements are non-exclusive, meaning they can sell, promote or show the piece elsewhere after it has appeared on the platform. Currently in beta, plans are to grow slowly, artist by artist and series by series.
“We believe television is an art but must also showcase different types of art outside of the competition format we see on reality TV,” Christian said. “We are not focused on ‘scale’ and ‘big data’ but rather on showcasing artists who have earned a few minutes of viewers’ time.”
By developing the shows, Christian is studying media production, consumption and distribution. His work and results will be summarized and, when possible, published on WeAreOpen.TV.
Open TV’s first original series, “You’re So Talented,” was honored at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring as part of its New Online Work program. The program recently received a $19,000 grant from Chicago Filmmakers and the Voqal Fund to help fund season two.
The series is a “dramedy” about a young artist of color in Chicago. Created and written by Samantha Bailey, who also acts in the show, it was largely produced by a crew of Columbia College students and includes original music from producer Samantha Lee and her band, Whatever Spectrum, with partner Alistair Slaughter.
“At this point I don’t think there's a place on commercial network television for You’re so Talented” right now,” Bailey said. “We’re moving closer but I don't think the people that head those networks think there's an audience for a black girl that looks like me and her stoner, artistic friends.”
During the traditional development process, Bailey would have been given “notes” from television networks, which can change the artist’s vision and make the stories less specific and sincere, Christian said.
“In this case, Sam has written season two without notes from me,” Christian said. “It’s a beautiful script with a vision of showing how a diverse group of artists live in Chicago’s many communities.”
Open TV is also working with trans artists. Shot in Los Angeles with Zackary Drucker, a co-producer on Amazon’s “Transparent,” the next original pilot should be premiering in the fall, Christian said. Major cable and web TV networks have been interested in trans stories to break into a competitive market for original programming.
But “unlike in most mainstream projects, our artists seem less focused on transition and more on how they live, survive and thrive in everyday life and creative endeavors,” Christian said.
Open TV grew out of a research project that Christian began back in 2008. As he studied the field, he realized that independent creators were feeling neglected by commercial television and were making and releasing their own shows via an open network. Producers piloted new shows in collaboration with fans and sponsors.
But web series had little visibility, and those who had seen a few weren’t impressed. Resources were scarce, budgets small, marketing and promotion a constant struggle, and sponsors were reluctant to support independent series, particularly from people of color, Christian said. “Many went completely unnoticed by potential fans,” he said.
Christian began seeking out a wide range of sources to help artists pilot shows. The heart of the project is “Open TV Presents,” a series of experimental pilots about artists exploring alternative relationships.
For example, the first independent pilot, “Nupita Obama Creates Vogua,” follows three romantically entangled queer of color performance artists who must learn to live with one another during a stressful moving day. A teaser shows the first scene where star Erik Wallace, a hip hop artist and dancer, demonstrates how elements of “vogue” might mix with yoga, showing “a side of hip hop masculinity that we rarely see on television,” Christian said. “Art is more than about men loving men. It’s about people loving people.”