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Associate Professor Wins Grant Funding to Make TV More Representative

Aymar Jean Christian, associate professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Radio/Television/Film, was awarded in June a Field Foundation of Illinois grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, honoring him as one of the 14 inaugural Leaders for a New Chicago. Christian is the founder of OTV | Open Television, a Chicago-based distribution platform for web series made by emerging intersectional artists.

Each $50,000 award honors leaders and organizations in the fields of justice, art, or media and storytelling, and comes with no strings attached. Christian’s prize is intended to be split among himself and OTV. He says the platform pays its artists a small amount to help with production budgets but, more importantly, offers them a community of like-minded creators, experienced mentors, and supportive viewers.

“This (award) means we have funds to help put on development programming for our artists,” Christian says. “We have an intensive planned at Sundance (Film Festival) in August and this will help cover those costs and go toward 2020 programming.”

Christian founded OTV in 2015 as a research project to test whether television shows could be created and distributed outside of the Los Angeles bubble, specifically shows by and about underrepresented voices—including people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Aymar Jean Christian, center, celebrating in April the start of OTV’s newest season at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Christian, top row right, with OTV artists.

Juli Del Prete (C14) and Kyra Jones (C14) of The Right Swipe.

“There is value in making work about historically marginalized identities in the communities that are affected by that form of marginalization,” he says. “If you make TV in Hollywood, you really are disconnected by most communities that are impacted by systems. So shows that are about people that have been historically marginalized are a little less real.”

OTV released two dozen projects this year, about half of them original series. These include such shows as The Right Swipe, written and produced by and starring Kyra Jones (C14) and Juli Del Prete (C14), about the perils of online dating; The Haven, created by former Northwestern faculty Mia McCullough (C92), about the underpaid staff of a domestic violence shelter; and Uneverything, created and directed by and starring Tracie Roberson, about a black woman nearing age 40 without a spouse, parents, or kids. The show Brown Girls, by Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey, was picked up by HBO and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2017.

Christian, who grew up in New Jersey and received his masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, says the model is working, particularly in the way that it boasts Chicago’s strengths as a media hub.

“This is an incredible city to incubate new work,” he says. “We have all the creative industries you need to make television: we have a film scene, we have crews, we have a theatre scene, which gives us excellent writers, directors, and actors; there’s an excellent music scene, poetry dance and performance and video art.”

Christian adds: “It’s big enough to have everything you need to make great TV but still small enough that it’s collaborative more than competitive. It’s important to showcase Chicago because we’re trying to showcase that there’s a different way to make television.”

OTV recently announced the development of series by four creators Christian says are on the brink of breaking into mainstream television, made possible by a grant from the nonprofit Pop Culture Collaborative. Christian is the author of Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television.