Young, Scripted, and Black: Regi Allen’s Quest to Make FunkTV the First Urban Alternative Network Posted by Marcus J. Moore
To hear Allen tell it, the BET executives weren’t interested in a show geared toward black audiences that was named with a persistent African-American stereotype in mind—never mind that the network itself frequently faces criticism for its negative portrayals of African Americans. And never mind that with his brainchild—an update of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for lovers of Blaxploitation films—Allen wanted to confront and dispel the stereotype, putting it in viewers’ faces and making it funny.
Allen says he was asked why he wanted to call his show Fried Chicken Cinema. “Because ‘Baked Chicken Cinema’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” he quipped. He says the executives didn’t even bother watching the show’s demo.
What Allen knew even then was that Fried Chicken Cinema is probably too smart for BET. It’s definitely too weird.
Allen, 43, is an award-winning senior editor at the Discovery Channel, but for several years he’s been hatching what he hopes will be the home of Fried Chicken Cinema and similar programming geared toward a young, quirky, well-educated black audience: FunkTV.
He’s found partners and he’s raised capital. Last month, Allen’s group submitted a 25-page pitch to cable behemoth Comcast, which earlier this year put out a call for “diverse channel” proposals. By 2019, Comcast plans to add at least 10 new, independently owned and operated networks to its digital cable package. That includes three that will hit the air by 2013—one with English-language programming geared toward Latinos, and two that are majority black-owned.
In the proposal, Allen’s team describes itself as a “team of television experts” focused on “providing a multidimensional view of diverse cultures not seen on television.” FunkTV would also be interactive, according to the proposal, incorporating viewers’ online comments into its broadcasts as they air.
The proposal also introduces the fictional Danny Tango, FunkTV’s mascot and “CEO,” a former nuclear physicist and “amalgamation of the African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian cultural experience” who wears a lucha libre mask. You can’t call your network FunkTV without getting funky.
In some ways, Allen is going after a demographic to which programs likeChappelle’s Show and The Boondocks appeal. According to the proposal, “FunkTV’s core target audience demographic was born in the 1980s and raised on Beverly Hills 90210, Walkmans, Smurfs, John Hughes movies, Nintendo Game Boy, gothic, and McDonald Happy Meals. Coming of age long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the proceeding ’90s-era culture wars, for this generation, hip-hop was not so much a counter-cultural statement but a fact of life. For the FunkTV folks, the environment has always been in crisis, America has always been at war somewhere in the world and the television has always been on.” In addition to original shows like Fried Chicken Cinema and documentary series in the Current TV vein, Allen wants to build an on-air home for cult movies and long-lost music—obscure black kung-fu films, for example, or the video for Musical Youth’s 1982 bizarro reggae single “Pass the Dutchie.” FunkTV, Allen says, would be the first urban alternative network.
“I have a love for the shit that no one knows exists,” says Allen. “There’s another voice out there, and it really freaks me out that no one has claimed that space.”
The MacBook Pro in Allen’s Mount Pleasant condo is wired to a triptych of flat-screen televisions. Wearing a blue janitor shirt and striped shorts, Allen sits back in his chair and cues up some of his latest visual obsessions: First comes abstracted, pink-hued video art; then, neo-soul singer Erykah Baduperforming some sort of interpretive dance; then, The Impossible Kid, a 1982 Filipino kung fu movie starring the two-foot-nine Weng Weng, who, using poorly executed martial-arts moves, thrashes foes thrice his size. By most standards, it’s an easily forgotten and downright bad movie. That means it’s charming.
Allen’s tastes are eclectic, and so is his background. He was raised in Brooklyn, and studied philosophy and architecture at the University of Barcelona. He returned to the States and eventually began working as a commercial film editor, while creating his own art films on the side. He won an Emmy for his editing work on Sesame Street, and was nominated for another as an editor onPeter Jennings’ The Century news series. In 1997, his directorial debut,Planet Brooklyn, won the Community Choice Award for best experimental film from the National Black Programming Consortium.
He dreamed up Fried Chicken Cinema in 2009, and tried shopping it at a conference of television executives in Las Vegas that year. There he metPhilip Hopkins and Ralph Stevens, who run Film Chest, a New York-based company that provides programmers with high-quality versions of films in the public domain—and whose library is rich in B-movies and cult gems.
Hopkins and Stevens told Allen they were looking to start a network that would in part find a use for their old, obscure films. But they liked Fried Chicken Cinema, and gave Allen the money to produce a sort of pilot. Then they helped him pitch it to BET and TV One, another network geared toward African-American audiences. “When we didn’t immediately get the response we were looking for, I then saw FunkTV as being a much more attractive project,” Allen says. “Why produce a show when you can produce a network?”
The Fried Chicken Cinema demo describes itself pretty aptly: “the movie review sitcom interactive cooking show program… thing.” There are its four hosts—one is unemployed, another works in a video store, another for a gossip blog, and the last is the aberrant superintendent of the building where they hang out—who gather in a cramped apartment to watch cult movies and eat different fried chicken recipes. There’s an actual cooking segment, featuring a recipe for honey-glazed wings. There are viewer comments and user videos. It’s not always funny, but it’s always manic, with snippets of cult films responding to the characters’ jokes—kind of like the kung fu-movie samples on a Wu-Tang Clanalbum.
In the demo, the characters riff on Get Christie Love!, a 1970s made-for-TV movie and later a TV series starring Teresa Graves—which you probably know because Quentin Tarantino’s pop culture-obsessed heist men banter about it in Reservoir Dogs.
“They could never have a show like this on BET,” says Allen. “This was my own way of being racy, being a little provocative, and pushing the envelope. And if a black network got behind this, it would’ve been fucking brilliant.”