African Americans in Television: Behind the Scenes. Gregory Adamo. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010. 200 pp. $119 hbk. $32.95 pbk.
Gregory Adamo, an assistant professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, goes behind the scenes of the television production industry to describe the experiences of African American producers and writers early in the twenty-first century. The account is based on interviews with seventeen industry professionals between 1998 and 2005, and it describes the hurdles they face in a business where success depends as much on who you know as what you know.
Adamo, a former general manager of a college radio station in New York, began this project as part of his doctoral work at Rutgers University. He focuses on what he calls the "new normal," the time in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century when black shows became a standard part of the network TV repertoire. Adamo argues that the success of shows like Sister, Sister and Everybody Hates Chris was due to five factors: the Fox network's strategy to gain viewership by appealing to an urban market, the creation of the UPN and WB networks in 1995, the expansion of cable channels, the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, and the African American writers themselves, who, seeing the opportunities, seized them.
It is the last point on which this book is primarily focused. Through the interviews, Adamo tells how these writers and producers started in show businesses and fought their way to positions of influence. Although Adamo is white, he says that the interviewees spoke candidly about their experiences within the Hollywood system. Some of the revelations are not surprising: college connections and internships do matter; network executives are reluctant to take risks with unknown talent and unorthodox ideas; and well-placed mentors can steer novices to success. These keys to employment and promotion are true regardless of race.
The strength of this book lies in its description of less obvious aspects of the black experience in Hollywood, particularly those issues on which the interview subjects disagree.
One of those issues is the role of affirmative action in aiding the careers of black television industry professionals. Rose Catherine Pinkney, senior vice president of Comedy Development at Paramount Communications, tells Adamo that she is proud that she is a product of affirmative action because her experience is proof that such programs can work to provide the industry with talented workers. But Shirley Salomon says that she was offended when she found out that she was hired as a director's assistant on the soap opera One Life to Live primarily because she was a minority. …