Tuesday 29th July 2014,
Televisual

Robert Townsend: The Future of Television, Importance of Social Justice, and Working With Committed Collaborators (Full Interview)

Aymar Jean Christian December 14, 2010 uncategorized 4 Comments

Last week I wrote up a story for Tubefilter on Robert Townsend’s web series projects, including Diary of a Single Mom and the upcoming Los Americans. The projects, all done with non-profit One Economy are, I believe, among the most innovative and interesting on the web, so I decided to publish a full, edited transcript of my interview with Townsend, where he goes into more detail about why these stories on important, the importance of having committed collaborators like One Economy CEO Rey Ramsey and great actors like Monica Calhoun and Esai Morales, and whether changing technologies can accommodate independent production and distribution.

Below the full transcript!

THE INTERVIEW:

AJC: What led you to the web?

Robert Townsend: A gentleman out of DC named Rey Ramsey. He approached me about creating content for the web. I was shooting a movie in Toronto and he said, ‘hey Robert, you’ve run a television network before, and online/broadband/web series are going to be the future, so would you be interested in creating web shows?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know much about it.’ He started to tell me more. And as he started to educate me more about what was really going on the future, I was like, ‘yea, let me try it.’ And the first web series he wanted to do was about single mothers, because they go through a lot and their stories are never really truly being told. And that became our first web series, Diary of a Single Mom. Then I called on friends in Hollywood, everybody that I thought would be right for the part, and everybody that I asked came aboard, like the legend Billy Dee Williams, Richard Roundtree, Leon, Monica, Diahann Carroll.

What is One Economy?

One Economy is a non-profit out of Washington, DC., and one of their missions is to get minorities online. Historically it’s been documented that minorities are the last to, you know, jump on board with technology. So Ray’s vision was to create a show that had a multi-ethnic cast, and give them quality programming – ‘spinach,’ stuff that would make their lives better.

Was it hard to shoot the series?

When you shoot something, it’s the same muscles and energy it would take to do a feature or a TV series. For the web, the only difference is we’re doing 12 to 14 minute episodes, but when you average it all together, we’re really shooting a small feature. It’s the same discipline, we’re using the same cameras that you’d use on any other production. We just had to figure out how you tell a really tight story in 12 minutes or 13 minutes.

What do you think works best about the show?

I think the production really just comes together on all levels. I think the acting is really fine. Cheryl [West] is an incredible writer. As a director, I just stay out of the way, because when you’ve got a good machine and a good team, we all work all together. We didn’t do it to win awards, we didn’t even know there were awards out there for web shows. We were just trying to create the best series we could and all of a sudden we’re nominated! So I think for us the spirit in which Ray envisioned the series is what it is. And I think people respond because it’s authentic. There’s a place where Cheryl writes from because she’s a single mother as well.

A lot of that authenticity seems to stem from Monica Calhoun. You want to root for her character, Ocean.

Oh my God, do you want to root for her! I’ve re-watched a lot of the episodes, and I just finished mixing season three. We’re supposed to be in there listening for sound problems, and we’re in there crying! Monica’s going through so much. You really feel like a voyeur going into this world because it feels very real. She’s at the heart of it. Ocean and Monica are at the heart of the show.

Was it difficult to get all these great actors to sign on?

You know, I’ve gotta tell you something: I’m really blessed. Because when they do interviews, and they’re asked, you know, ‘why did you do a web series, you’re a legend, etc.’ And everybody says it’s because of Robert Townsend. I’ve always tried to do quality work in my career and tried to do the right things. So whenever I call somebody, like the last documentary I did, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, I called everybody, and Bill Cosby calls me back and says, ‘hey man, do you want me to do an interview for this documentary, I’m in.’ Chris Rock: ‘I’m in.’ Wayans Brothers: ‘I’m in.’ Steve Harvey. And it just makes you feel really good, because they know that whatever I’m working on, I’m trying to do something special. Diahann Carroll told me, ‘I don’t know what a web series is, but it’s you.’ [Laughs] I’m like, ‘okay, thank you!’

What is it about the Single Mom that’s important? Its social justice mission? What it says about race in America?

The most significant part for me is that it sends a message of hope. Last night, I was reading the comments. And the beautiful thing about the web is that people can watch it, and they can tell you how they feel. What touches them, and what doesn’t touch them. It’s like the best focus group, word of mouth. Last night, I’d been doing interviews all day, just press, and I thought, ‘let me hear what everybody’s saying.’ And I sat there in my house reading the comments and it made me cry. Some of the single mothers said, ‘I felt all alone until I got this show.’ And ‘this is my story. This is my life.’ And, ‘Ocean gives me hope.’ We’re just creating a show, now when somebody writes that this is their life… It’s a community of mothers coming together that may be sitting at home saying, ‘life is too hard. I don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet.’ And then they see Ocean and they’re like ‘okay, she has friends, and she believes, and she prays and she tries hard.’ So ultimately I think it’s a message of hope.

And it’s not pie-in-the-sky hope either.

The thing is that because her world is raw, and it’s real, and it’s rich with problems and ups and downs. I think that her situation is very real. I think that people who turn in and check it out, they’re like, ‘oh that’s real.’ It’s not Leave It To Beaver. It’s not the Huxtables. It’s not life is just easygoing. She’s gotta work hard. Every twist and turn there’s a new problem.

In the third season opener, somebody buys the building she manages!

She’s already going through enough, but that’s how life is. She’s just dealing with real things.

Do you have plans for more seasons? Is this the final season?

We’d love to do another season. We’re at that point where now we’ve really got to find sponsors and be able to find a good sponsor who’ll work with us to fund the next couple of seasons. And we’re reaching out to try to find a television partner, and it looks like we might be close to something there. So discussions are going on.

So far the funder has primarily been One Economy?

One Economy, and, you know, different funding sources from non-profits, the Ford Foundation, Comcast. Different people have given to the non-profit that have helped fund this.

It’s quite an innovative and avant-garde model for a non-profit. But it seems like a really good one, like a lot of people are responding to the series.

It was really Rey Ramsey’s vision. But I’ve got to tell you. We went to the housing projects outside of DC, Potomac Gardens. And we had a screening of a couple of the episodes for the community center there, you know, real people. They responded. ‘This is what we need. We need stories to encourage us. Because a lot of times people feel all alone.’ Movies and television traditionally can give you answers. You may say, ‘really?’ Yea, people can watch a movie and go like, ‘wow, she can get out of that situation. I can get out of that situation.’ Or, ‘she got a job. She fell in love. I know I can fall in love.’ So to me when we went to that community center — and we’re going to do more of those — we really got a chance to see firsthand the effect it was having on people and the community. So I think it’s all really good. And we’re continuing to have an impact.

It’s because of Rey’s vision. Because it’s one thing to say there’s a lot of great stuff on the Internet for you to go to that can make your life better, from WebMD, to health tips, to finanicial coaches. But people don’t take advantage of it. So he goes, ‘Robert, if we can dramatize this, and make people see themselves in the show, and then when you go to the site, there’s a thing called a toolbox, the ‘Make It Easy toolbox.’ The beauty of that is so many people have been clicking on that toolbox.

When Ocean tries to get her GED, the toolbox asks, ‘are you trying to get your GED? We can help you.’ So those kind of things make it interactive, but it’s using technology to the fullest.

I read recently you have a new project in development. Tell me about it.

Well, there’s two that we’re doing right now. One is called Los Americans, and I’m executive producing that one. That’s being directed by Dennis Leoni, who created a show for Showtime called Resurrection Blvd. And Los Americans is the first Latino web series that we’re producing at One Economy, and it stars Esai Morales who’s been in from La Bamba to Bad Boys – he’s been in so many movies – and then it’s got an all-star cast of Latino actors. We’re in our last week of shooting for Los Americans – we’ve got three more days of shooting. Dennis Leoni, he wrote it, he directed it, and he’s executive producing it with myself and Rey Ramsey.

Then The Discarded Boys: that’s going to be a film that we’re going to do for the web, but we’re going to take it everywhere in between. It’s based on a true story about this woman in North Carolina named Vivian Saunders, who basically without really any formal education, started an alternative school for all these boys who were being kicked out: gang bangers, drug dealers. And they’re all teenagers, fathers at 14 and 15.  We’re doing a movie on her life because One Economy funded the school, and so we’re taking a homegrown idea and taking it to the screen. So we’re going to basically release it as an independent film, and then it’s going to air on the web. We start shooting that December 15th.

Tell me more about Los Americans.

Los Americans is about a middle class, Latino family, and it’s about a father who looses his job in a tough economy and how they have to turn their lives around and come together. And so it deals with a lot of the issues that are going on right now in the economy. It’s written really brilliantly. The beauty of it is we’ve never seen this kind of family on television. And now it’ll appear on the web: normally it’s got to be in the barrio, and they have no money – the stereotypes. This one is not stereotypical at all and it’s really well-written. It brings up issues from immigration, to alcoholism, to pride in one’s culture. Dennis is a brilliant writer, and Resurrection Blvd. on Showtime, that was one of the highest rated most popular shows on Showtime and it had a huge Latino audience.

It seems like you have a budding relationship with One Economy.

I’ve been with One Economy for three years, and, I mean, Rey: I love his heart and I love his vision, and so his vision now has become my vision, because we need these stories to be told and we need to help people know that online there’s a world out there that has incredible stuff. This is the first experiment, and we’re winning.

What the value of doing a web series? How is it different from television and the TV industry?

I think everybody’s viewing habits are different now. There was a time many, many years when there were only three networks. Then there twenty networks. Now there’s 500 networks. But we will still watch what we want to watch, what speaks to us, and we view it differently. I love David Letterman, but I TiVO David Letterman, so I can watch it in the morning; I don’t have to stay up ‘til 12:30 at night! I can watch him in the afternoon. We’re more about: what’s the name of the show, and I can get it on my phone, or I can get it on my computer, or I can watch it on television. I think because people’s viewing habits have changed so much. You know, you could say, ‘watch me tonight on NBC!’ or you could say ‘watch the show on PIC.tv!’

Now the divide is not so big. Yesterday, I was just mentioning on Tom Joyner close to 50,000 people watched Diary of a Single Mom. So we’re figuring out the marketing side, but now when people know there’s a destination, everybody’s used to just going to the destination. We don’t have the millions of dollars like an NBC or an ABC to promote a show, but again when you think in terms of a niche audience – if somebody says, ‘I really like single mothers and I want to know about single mothers, there’s nothing on television, no reality shows that speak to this, I’m going to go to PIC.tv.’ It’s like having your own network, you’ve just got to be able to market it and hype it. With celebrities, the whole cast has been doing interviews, and when you get stars, they can basically give you millions of dollars of free publicity. And I feel like with Google TV there’s going to be a switch, on television. Everybody’s going to be able to watch the web on TV anyway.

I haven’t gotten it yet, but Google TV could be a game changer.

Yea, so I think when you have game changers like that – I mean Apple has already been experimenting with Apple TV but I think Google might have figured it out – everything that you thought was so far removed now is at your fingertips.

What’s in store for Ocean this season?

Oh my God, what’s in store for Ocean! Ocean’s already been hit from all sides, but her love life is heating up a little bit. She’s under attack now because somebody just bought the building, so that’s a major pressure on her. Her household’s turned upside down in a lot of ways. Nothing is at it appears to be. Right now she has certain people in her household who have really been there for her, and I think this season she’s really being pushed because those that really love start to turn on her. And it’s real life. It’s real life stuff. Some days everybody’s in sync and some days they’re not, and I think this season we watch her being truly stretched. Again, it’s Cheryl’s writing, because Cheryl’s just goes to that real place: kids understand and kids don’t understand, family understands and family doesn’t understand, and so Ocean’s really being stretched this last, new season.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

4 Comments

  1. nagrom February 9, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Great interview. Excellent discussion of how the media is changing. So true; Cheryl West just goes to that real place.

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