In so many ways, it was just like every other cable news set I had ever been on: stylish leather chairs, strategically positioned Klieg lights, and an ever-nervous floor director. A stern-faced technician dutifully wired me up with an audio pack, fresh off the charger, and clipped a microphone just above my bosom.
“Sorry,” he said. “My hands are cold.”
It was another rainy afternoon in Atlanta, the midday sun still lingering in the sky, but here on the fictional set of BET’s hit show Being Mary Jane, according to the script it was just before 8 p.m. This was the “SNC News Network” and we were about to go “live” in “prime time.”
I grinned at the “anchor,” an obscenely gorgeous brown sister with long legs and an easy, albeit perfect smile, and wondered were she got that marvelous white outfit. It had been six months since I last worked in cable news, but I was invited to play the part of “Goldie Taylor” and that would be easy enough. This wasn’t my first time at the “rodeo,” but I quietly hoped that I could remember my lines. I harbored a small spate of comfort—and a bit of excitement—that this was not “live” but a taped and scripted cameo appearance. If I goofed up, I could get a “do-over” and the whole thing would get edited.
I recall thinking then how wonderful it would be if this were real: me debating the issues of the day in prime time, sitting across from a celebrated black woman who was holding down the anchor chair.
“Let’s just be honest,” as Dej Loaf sings. “Let’s just be real.”
I no longer earn a living as a cable news pundit and “Mary Jane,” played by actress Gabrielle Union, is a figment of someone’s glorious imagination. There is, of course, CNN’s Don Lemon—an unabashed provocateur, who ably holds court every weeknight at 10 p.m. and regularly reports from hotspots around the country. But, you see, an hour-long, scripted drama series on BET is the only place that you will find a black woman hosting a prime time talk show anywhere on the television dial.
Even so, Being Mary Jane was no small gambit. BET, a network that got its start on the cheap with music videos and is now largely known for low-budget reality show programming, put real money on the table to bring the show to life. Created by powerhouse show runner Mara Brock Akil, the show entered its third season Tuesday night. Union, a Hollywood veteran, returned to her lead role as Mary Jane Paul—a successful cable news anchor who boasts a fabulous home, designer clothes, and a pricey sports car.
Long before Shonda Rhimes wowed audiences with the travails of Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, for more than a decade Akil was creating and producing hit shows that featured black women. She followed her breakthrough show, Girlfriends, which ran from 2000 to 2008, with Being Mary Jane. Unlike The Walking Dead, in which all the black characters get eaten first, Mary Jane—similarly to the real-life Lemon—deftly navigates internal network politics and plays to audience demands to survive, one episode after another.
Cable news is a rough business, but you cannot tell me that there is not a single woman of color who can master the job. (We don’t top the list of potential hosts for coveted late-night television spots either, but that’s another story, another complication for another day.) Though, I wonder even now what it would be like to turn on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News and see someone like Soledad O’Brien, Joy-Ann Reid, Mara Schiavocampo, or Fredericka Whitfield hosting a talk show every night.
Certainly, it is not about a lack of available talent. Unfortunately, the paucity of African-American women (and men) in prime-time roles—where the stars shine brighter and the paychecks are higher—is, I know, by choice.
Some years ago, a group of executives (at a network I will not name) crowded around a conference room table to discuss a problem: Jesse Jackson. The civil rights leader was making the rounds at various national news organizations, demanding more diverse talent, and he had a list.
It was true that the ratings were lagging and, if they had any chance at all of besting the market leader, they had to grow viewership beyond of the core audience. Overlooking the beautiful plaza below, programming honchos listened as researchers explained that black people actually watch news and at least one of the execs (a former vice president who also happened to be black) thought they should do something about that.
At the time, it was true that nearly every anchor—dayside and prime time—was white (and male) while the audience was increasingly diverse. How much, they really did not know. But they did know that in order to win they needed more black people in prominent roles.
“Black people don’t rate,” the network president balked, stunning the room to silence.
It was a flippant remark, one that nearly made the headlines of a national newspaper. With or without context, it would have been embarrassing if his words had seen the light of day. Network flacks worked day and night to kill the story. At least one reporter, whose job it was to cover media, was threatened with banishment if he ran the news item. But the word got out anyway.
In the end, over the ensuing years, talent was tested and hires were made. Digital and televised content was adjusted to reflect the growing audience. But, ultimately, there would be no African American in a prime time anchor chair on any network.
Candidly, that network president wasn’t (and still isn’t) alone in his feelings. While veteran black journalists are routinely remanded to dayside or weekend programming—something one CNN anchor called “the cable news ghetto”—networks invested tens of millions in people like Piers Morgan, who went on to deliver lackluster ratings. Then too, it took years (and a series of stumbles by Brian Williams) for NBC News executives to bet the ranch on Lester Holt. Former ABC News weekend anchor Carol Simpson has been one of the most fervent, magnanimous voices.
Golden Globe-winning director Ava DuVernay, who brought Selma to the silver screen, once said that Hollywood is “a bunch of closed doors.” Arguably, the same can be said of cable news. Tonight, as I watched the season premiere of Being Mary Jane, I wonder if or when that will change.