Interview with OTV founder Dr. Aymar Jean Christian

3+
Dr. Aymar Jean Christian at the 2018 Streamys Premiere Awards

Dr. Aymar Jean Christian at the 2018 Streamys Premiere Awards

Open Television
author and creator
is helping to
bring marginalized
creators and content
into the spotlight
of American culture


 

Over the last four years, Dr. Aymar Jean Christian has inspired a community of artists and intellectuals to disrupt one of the greatest institutions in America. With analytical expertise, online manipulation, shrewd outreach, and boundless creativity, the Northwestern University professor has helped institute a way of thinking that will most likely change the nation’s media scape forever.

The results are a joy to watch.

Dr. Christian is the founder of Open Television, which defines itself as, “a platform for intersectional pilots and series.” He describes intersectionality as a quality that applies to “people who have multiple forms of marginalization.”

In other words, people who belong to more than one category outside of the white, straight, cisgender demographic that has traditionally dominated American movies and TV. In Dr Christian’s opinion, they constitute one of the largest populations in the country.

The premise is something of a “provocation,” he admits; but it also inspires content that people like to watch, and that’s kind of the whole point.

“I hope that, when people go to OTV, they look at it and see America, and then they click on something random and they’re like, hey, this is good,” he says. “We’re trying to demystify what it means to represent cultural differences, and I think all the stories on OTV are relatable but specific.”

Since launching in 2015, OTV has scored millions of views and released hundreds of shows including HBO’s Brown Girls and the Streamy Award-winning series, the T.

Elijah McKinnon
Elijah McKinnon

The platform’s annual season, also called a Cycle, kicks off every spring with a celebration featuring premieres and performances that pack venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The majority of the content is developed with assistance from OTV’s development team, a process that grew out of Dr. Christian’s dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a PhD in Communications.

“My dissertation looks at the phenomenon of the web series through the lens of the television industry,” he explains. “Open access to distribution allowed producers to circumvent development executives.”

Dr. Christian proposed that the internet was tapping into all kinds of stuff that had been ignored forever — from stories and characters to writers and actors. As the New Jersey-born son of a mother from Jamaica and a father from St. Lucia, he knew what it was like to feel forgotten by the national media. Changing the status quo required a new way of doing things.

Stephanie Jeter
Stephanie Jeter

The idea became a book titled, Open TV: Innovation beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television. Then it formed the basis of a platform that hasn’t stopped growing since.

OTV recently appointed the self-described “multi-hyphenate millennial” Elijah McKinnon as Executive Director to replace Dr. Christian, who will stay on in an advisory role. It is also in the process of spinning off a studio that will be operated by its “amazing” head of production, Chicago filmmaker Stephanie Jeter. Next year, the platform intends to launch an app that will be “cheaper than Netflix.”

And today, its Damaged Goods series became the third OTV show to earn a nomination for Best Indie Series from the Streamy Awards (the other two are Brown Girls and the T).

When talking about OTV, Dr. Christian advocates the kind of stuff generally assigned to social agitators, media disruptors, and cultural warriors; but he does it in a friendly and agreeable tone that makes him one of the most charming revolutionaries in American history. Here, in a Reel Chicago exclusive, he explains the past, present, and future of the people, practices, and shows that make OTV on of the country’s hottest new forms of entertainment.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
INTERSECTIONAL TRAILER | CYCLE 4 2019

 

How do you define intersectionality? Intersectionality is an idea developed by Black feminists throughout the 20th century to describe the specificity of their experience. They were trying to describe why social justice movements like the Black Power movement and the women’s movement or certain laws couldn’t seem to, you know, support their rights as Black women — they always end up getting some of their issues lopped off. So they theorize, well, it’s because our identity is intersectional and can’t be pulled apart. You can’t pull Blackness away from woman-ness. I’ve extended that to include all people who have multiple forms of marginalization. You’ll see series on OTV starring white women, but they may be queer or disabled. Or trans-people of color living on the intersection of race and gender.
 
 

What inspired you to build OTV? There was so much inspiration. Black TV in the 60s and 70s. Indie creators like Issa Rae and Felicia Day, who both produced and distributed. Other indie TV channels like Black&Sexy or SLAY TV. Sam Bailey and many of Chicago’s performing artists inspired by in Chicago. Sam created our very first show in 2015, You’re So Talented. Before I met with her, I was planning to release pilots. Then she wanted me to write about You’re So Talented on my blog. I had never seen a web series that polished. I was like, if people are making series like this in Chicago, we can make a network. So I was like, OK, but maybe we can work together. She needed a little bit of money to finish, so I wrote her a small check. The rest is history. There was something special going on in Chicago, no question about it.
 
 

How did the internet affect the growth of OTV? In my book, I look at why —around 2006, 2007 on YouTube — all of the sudden you see tons of women, people of color, Queer people making web series. I interviewed those people, and they were all trying to get on TV, but they just couldn’t get any meetings. No one would take them seriously. So they made their own shows. I learned that the development process in Hollywood was broken, antiquated, from Issa Rae (Rae is an actor, writer, and director, currently finishing as Executive Producer on Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds). Issa was like, these executives have no idea what communities want. She had a huge online audience and she knew what her audience wanted. So I started OTV following what she did with Color Creative, basically thinking OK, let’s do independent distribution, create an online platform, meet with artists, and share all the things I’ve learned from interviewing people like her, the High Maintenance team, the Broad City team, and a hundred other web series producers. You could make a TV show without having to go to L.A., and this access to distribution sparked innovation by allowing producers to circumvent development executives.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
YOGMA | OFFICIAL TRAILER

 

What does OTV offer to viewers who do not define themselves as “intersectional”? I hope that, when people go to OTV, they look at it and see America. And then they click on something random and they’re like, hey, this is good. We’re trying to demystify what it means to represent cultural differences, and I think all the stories on OTV are relatable but specific.
 
 

What was hot when you wrote the book? Everything was changing. Netflix just had just started original programming. YouTube had been in the middle of multi-channel networks, AOL was touting programmatic advertising, and Yahoo had Screen, which is now gone. The last hot web series that I wrote about was probably High Maintenance. I love High Maintenance, even the HBO version, which picked up characters from the web series. It was scrappier and more, kind of, loose and free. It’s super short. It’s a good palate cleanser. My favorite episode is called Rachel. It explores gender in this fascinating, artistic way.
 
 

How do the traditional TV networks treat intersectionality? Intersectionality actually describes most people, but for decades Hollywood has seen it as this really scary thing. When you saw Black people on television, more often than not it was a show anchored by a straight Black man. Or you saw Queer people as most often, like, white gay men. Women were white, straight women. To understand intersectionality, you have to listen to the stories of people who are living through very specific, diverse experiences. Now things have changed a bit with brilliant shows like Pose, but we have a very long way to go.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
UNITED STATES OF ALIENS (US ALIENS) | TRAILER

 

Is there a particular individual who you consider to be the pioneer of intersectionality? The term was coined by a legal scholar named Kimberly Crenshaw, and she wrote very important Law Review articles that were about how the law fails intersectionality. Audre Lorde, a scholar and a Black Queer woman who, before the term was coined, wrote a lot of really influential articles about feeling marginalized, especially by the women’s movement … Before them it was Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth talking about how after slavery and during the suffrage movement, people were advocating for women’s right to vote but not Black women’s right to vote.
 
 

Has traditional TV ever featured an intersectional character? I think Julia in the late-60s early-70s was the first prime time show starring a Black woman. She played a nurse, and that was the last time they did that until Scandal in 2012. Scandal was super important because it was, after Julia, the first primetime drama starring any woman of color. I think Scandal started this big push for diversity because, when it debuted in 2012, there were very few Black TV shows. If you look at the identities of writers throughout the 2000s on the WGA report, the number of Black writers stayed virtually flat. And that was all because of regulation in the late 1990s that made companies vertically integrated. There was a ton of Black TV in the 90s; but it disappeared in the 2000s because companies figured out different ways to make money.
 
 

What prevented the industry from developing more diverse programming? Most executives are cisgender, straight white people. And since they have a difficult time identifying with those characters, they assume that everyone will. Scandal dispelled that entire narrative when it premiered in 2012 because, over the course of season one, the ratings increased, I believe, by 50 percent. All the other network dramas had gone down. Then they try Empire two years later, and the same thing happens. No one in Hollywood had actually tried to make a drama starring people of color. There’s a huge fanbase for drama amongst, especially, Black people. Black people love soap operas. Half the women in my family watch soap operas. Right? And the industry just never really tried it. So Scandal happens and then Empire happens and then Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, and now Pose is a hit, and yada yada yada. So, intersectionality is now in vogue, and we were, I think, slightly ahead of the curve.
 
 

How do you get a show on OTV? We operate completely not like a Hollywood network. Hollywood is all about saying no. We’re all about saying yes. I reserve time every week to meet with artists. I ask them: what’s your story? Why are you telling it? What do you want to do with it? I give them case studies to consider. If it’s an ambitious drama, I suggest they do something smaller that shows their voice until they’re more senior and can get funding. Some people just have the idea, so I’m like, OK, send me the script and I’ll get an MFA student to give you notes. A lot of times, it’s fundraising. I tell them about grants. Everyone on the OTV team has crowdfunded, so we share best practices for that. Sometimes people need connection to crew. We know a lot of really young, hungry DPs, so I do a lot of matchmaking and introductions. Our amazing head of production Stephanie Jeter will also advise on, like, insurance, budgets and permits and making sure you don’t make core mistakes. Behind-the-scenes, it’s free consultation, and we rarely say no.
 
 

Have you ever said no? In very, very limited cases, we have told creators, like, we don’t know if we can release this because we don’t know if this could resonate with our audience. There was one show this year that dealt with a very controversial topic, and we thought maybe it wasn’t as sensitive to all the characters in the story. But, we didn’t really say no. It was a script stage thing, and we still need to see how it plays out in production. Gender, race, sexuality is complicated. It matters how it’s executed.
 
 

Who makes the final decision on the fate of the shows? If I had my preference, I would release everything, you know, no matter what, because I’m interested in data. Something that is inelegant — let’s put it that way — can generate really interesting discussion and help us define the boundaries of intersectionality. But OTV is not just a research project anymore. It’s bigger than I can manage and administer at this point so, you know, one bit of news you can put in the story is that as of this month we have our first Executive Director, Elijah McKinnon, who will be an interim executive director subject to Board approval in 2020. I probably won’t be the decision maker for much longer, but we’re still going to try and be as inclusive as possible. Netflix releases like six or eight hundred hours of programming a year; we release maybe 40 if we’re lucky.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
DAMAGED GOODS | TRAILER

 

What qualifies Elijah to step into your shoes? Elijah is amazing. For the very first pilot that I produced for OTV, Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, in Winter 2014, Elijah had literally just arrived to Chicago and came to the set to be a P.A. They designed the original Open TV logo and the color scheme and the website and the social media presence. Elijah also produced all our events in the early days, as well as music videos, ads, narrative and scripted work. So like they’re the ideal executive director. Elijah also runs a community space on North Avenue in Humboldt Park called Reunion with Kristen Kaza.
 
 

What will you do after Elijah takes over? The idea is for me to stay on as head of research and internally consult the team and the artists. We want to eventually hire a new head of development to take over that artist-facing role. We would also love to do industry reports and track mainstream programming and trends and help the industry see what and how they’re doing. UCLA and USC do great industry reports, but I think we can go into greater detail. We also have a planned app for next year, so we’ll be developing a membership program so that we can get revenue, and you can have OTV on your TV. It will be much cheaper than Netflix. Stephanie is also starting up a spin-off Studio that will operate separately from the non-profit side where I and the rest of the existing team will be.
 
 

What common mistakes are the most difficult for creators to avoid? People think that they have to shoot everything to get where they need to go. That’s not the case. We’ve seen series that are just 15 or 20 minutes of content, but well-produced. That proof of concept gets them a writing gig on a TV show or a directing gig or, you know, their first agent or their first manager. Do what you can to the best of your ability.
 
 

How many programs do you have going on?
This year we’ve released, so far, around two-dozen projects. There’ll be a couple more over the summer and early fall that won’t have official OTV premieres, but the artists probably organized their own. Our total is around 60 projects.
 
 

How many views has OTV generated? We’re at one million plus for everything.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
BROWN GIRLS | TRAILER

 

What other organizations do you partner with? We’ve done recent programs and events with Black Cinema House, the Stony Island Arts Bank, and the Sundance Institute for our Emerging Storytellers of Chicago, a two day-event hosted at the Wachowski sibling’s Ravenswood studio, Kinowerks.
 
 

Why is Chicago the perfect home for OTV? The indie web series coming out of New York or L.A., yeah, some of them are well done; but I actually think we’re turning out more better-executed series, better writing, better acting, better directing, better music. Like, I think bar none, because we are not on the coasts, and there are no big money people here. And Chicago wants to support Chicago, and people want quality stuff for their reels. We have amazing actors and theater and poetry, across all the disciplines.
 
 

How long is it going to take Hollywood to show this kind of appreciation? They’re getting to it. Every, like, twice a year, I go to L.A. and do a round of meetings with networks and studios and in all those companies there are people who get it.
 
 

What will it take to make intersectionality mainstream? One of the things Brujos creator Ricardo Gamboa’s been saying for years that I’m starting to hear now is: Specificity is relatable. Before cable, relatable characters were, like, recognizable to middle-class suburban America. Now, especially because there is so much TV, more and more people are getting trained to identify people who are different from them. For so many decades, TV didn’t know how to develop diverse content. They took characters who were specific and tried to make them more general. So executives would think: I can’t identify with that because it’s too this. That’s because executives pushed it to be too that or not like what it should be. Since we say yes and don’t give notes, you’re seeing what it means for people to just tell the story. That’s how you get to relatability.
 
 

How has the traditional mainstream’s appreciation for OTV evolved? I only got called upon by industry after Brown Girls. Since then, more and more people just reached out. People are looking for ideas and writers and they need staff. The challenge that we’re running up against is a core pipeline issue, which is that development happens in Hollywood, and we’re in Chicago. And this is not just our problem. So many artists have to give up their whole lives and move to L.A. to have a job. And I think that’s ridiculous in a digital age. I really wish that CAA, WME, and some of the networks had offices in Chicago, Atlanta, these outside industry hubs. I think it’s simple and they can afford it. Even before OTV, so many people from the Chicago theater scene ended up writing in traditional TV. They know there’s talent here and they expect people to move to L.A., which is, like, hella expensive. And of course that reinforces inequalities, because the less privileged you are — if you are poor and Black and woman and Queer — you’re not going to be able to move to L.A.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV
NIGHT NIGHT | TEASER

 

And those people are all on the fringes of the industry? It’s perceived as fringe, but what I saw in the data for Brown Girls, definitely our most viral series, is that the show would not have been as popular if it wasn’t really about intersectional people. They got views from women’s sites and Black sites and Latinx sites and Queer sites. They were building an audience by identity. So one of the things I’m going to be writing about in my book is, have we thought about intersectionality all wrong as fringe? Is it actually the center of everything? If you represent someone who’s a poor, Black, Queer Muslim woman, might you actually get a broader audience than representing someone who’s a straight white woman. It’s a provocation, but I think there’s something about the Internet and the fact that we’re no longer in the TV environment where three companies have distribution for the entire country. You have to earn every single view. And if you’re going to earn those views, you got to represent people specifically. And if you only have one character, you can speak to multiple communities through that one character.
 
 

When is this book coming out? Probably 2022 or 2023. I have a lot of data through this project. Every screening we do, I do a survey. So I have thousands of responses that need to be coded … dozens of interviews with artists, executives, partners, people we screen with here in Chicago … field notes from everything. So the book is about how TV is becoming more platform-based. Like, every TV channel needs an app now. And social media platforms are so critical to every economy. But I think we’re missing something when we talk about platforms. We’ve lost the fundamental image of a platform, which is to lift up voices. You think about the soapbox as a platform. The whole idea is to take something that was not seen and lift it up so people can see it. But go on social media right now, and everyone’s struggling for attention. The people who are most marginalized are having the most difficult time finding their communities. And also what happens after, you know, the TV bubble? Every year, more and more shows are getting made, which has been great for diversity now. But what happens when Disney and AT&T and Comcast cut back? Usually it is the diverse shows that lose out. So, I really want to make sure that we keep these platforms open. In order to do that, these companies have to have organic development processes, developing culture and content from a local perspective and from diverse sources, thinking about media economies kind of like our environment. And it needs to be sustainable. It needs to be farmed responsibly. It needs to be local. It needs to be organic. And I hear this in interviews all the time. You know, I found my crew organically, or this story emerged organically and, you know, I found my audience organically. I met this person in real life, and we talked, and they wrote about it, and then their friend found it. Right? So, that’s the second book. I want it to be an e-book. We have so many photos and videos, charts and graphs. I want to collaborate with artists to represent our community through numbers. It’ll be a while, but it’ll be a fun book.
 
 

What books and writers inspire you? I don’t get to read much fiction. I was just on vacation. It was the first time I picked up a novel in a year. I was reading Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, his last novel. It is really good. It’s the story of a family in the church business. It kind of looks at the behind-the-scenes, dark side of, like, gospel singers, preachers, who were critical to Black culture. The late Stuart Hall is kind of the big scholar of representation in media in my field. He’s a British Cultural Studies scholar and a child of Caribbean immigrants, as I am. In this next book I’m actually going to be thinking about WEB DuBois. People know him for his race theory, but he was a sociologist and studied localized Black communities at the turn of the century. He has a paper on Black Philadelphia, Black people in Georgia. He collaborated with modernist artists to create graphs of Black life. They looked really cool. So something I want to do in my next book is thinking about how do we creatively present research.
 
 

What are the most positive reviews of OTV shows that you have received? I will shout out Nina Metz in the Chicago Tribune, who has reviewed a number of our shows and takes them very seriously. She’s critically engaged with the work, which I think is super essential. This year, she reviewed The Haven and, I think, felt most strongly about it. It’s about a domestic violence shelter; but it’s not just a downer: it’s got a lot of humor, too. I was worried — oh my God, this is going to be so serious — but (writer and co-director) Mia McCullough threw in jokes. Mia got great actresses. She was really intentional about making sure that the crew represented the people on the show … and she made sure everyone was paid pretty well.

 
OPEN TELEVISION | OTV | MIA MCCULLOUGH
THE HAVEN | EPISODE 1

 

What have you learned since launching OTV? I’ve been surprised by how much people want to support OTV. As a scholar, I was trained to be critical. All of my colleagues who cite me and who I read are usually very cynical about the possibility for change and the ways in which capitalism continues to push people down and create inequality. I think all those things are still true, but I think we as scholars underestimate how many people out there want to change that. And I actually think I underestimated how much energy there would be behind this project … how interested people in the industry were into it and how much people in Chicago were invested in making something like this sustainable. It’s been truly beautiful and a little — um, what’s the word? — anxiety-inducing, or maybe even a little delirious, because I’ve had to re-shift my perspective. I had to go from starting this project as an experiment to this is a “thing.” I need to work on funding and building a structure and getting my team to have buy-in and work more. It’s a totally different side of my brain, you know, the critical scholar side. It’s about learning and understanding and pointing out flaws. But there is also an aspect where you’ve got to be kind of like a self-promoter, right, and talk about how amazing things are and how amazing you are. You know, go to fundraisers and shake hands and be like, “I have this great project.” And that’s not what they train you to do in PhD programs. But I’m happy that my team is, of course, full of working artists and working creatives who are on their hustle. Chicago and I owe them so much.

 
 
Send your news to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

3+
COMMENTS