For black sitcom 'Love That Girl!,' TV One may be the network of its dreams

LOW-COST LAUGHS: From left, Tatyana Ali, Kendyl Joi and Alphonso McAuley in "Love That Girl!" Creator Bentley Kyle Evans shopped the budget-minded series to TV One after BET took a pass.
LOW-COST LAUGHS: From left, Tatyana Ali, Kendyl Joi and Alphonso McAuley in "Love That Girl!" Creator Bentley Kyle Evans shopped the budget-minded series to TV One after BET took a pass. (Bent Outta Shape Productions)
By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Silver Spring-based TV One has bought four episodes of its first original scripted sitcom: an African American-produced, African American-cast sitcom about a young divorcee that has been given the deliciously retro title "Love That Girl!"

The show hopes to attract an audience that has been largely ignored by broadcasters since CW dumped the last vestiges of UPN's black-cast comedy lineup -- and isn't being shown much love by cable networks either.

TV One did not develop the show; the four episodes were created, written and directed on spec by Bentley Kyle Evans ("Martin," "The Jamie Foxx Show") outside the studio system for around $1.2 million, which is maybe half what one episode of a successful-ish broadcast sitcom costs these days.

The four episodes of "Love That Girl!" -- my new favorite series name -- were shot in five days. That's less than the length of time it would take to shoot that one episode of that successful-ish broadcast sitcom.

"We built our own sets," Evans told the TV Column on Tuesday, in explaining how you can make four episodes of a sitcom for $1.2 million. "As far as writing and directing -- I did that. I paid myself minimum wage to get it done."

Martin Lawrence, star of '90s Fox sitcom "Martin," is among the show's executive producers. Not coincidentally, reruns of "Martin" are TV One's most successful prime-time series.

And Tatyana Ali, who headlines TV One's monthly hour-long celebrity interview show, "TV One Access," stars in "Love That Girl!"; she also played Ashley on NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in the '90s.

Evans said he hopes TV One looks at the series as an opportunity to get a jump on BET, which has taken some stabs at doing original scripted programs, though its efforts never seem to take.

(Remember how BET, in 2005, named indie filmmaker Reginald Hudlin to be the cable net's first president of entertainment? He flamed out, though he will go into the history books as the very first, and probably very last, executive to use the expression "Fellini-esque" at a BET Press Tour Q&A session. That was his description of BET's "Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown," in which the network followed Ms. Kim as she prepared to do time in the hoosegow after lying to a grand jury and then on the stand at a trial in re what she saw at a shooting outside a Manhattan radio station in 2001.)

"BET was the first network I took it to because of a prior relationship," Evans said of taking "Love That Girl!" to market.

BET took a pass, he said. "It seems like they want to be a major player in the game, but every time they're given the opportunity, they fall short, out of fear. . . . They don't take risks. They don't take chances."

Evans likened his business model to that being used by Tyler Perry and production company Debmar-Mercury for Perry's TBS comedies. "This wasn't developed for anyone. I developed it for me," Evans said. "I shopped it for distribution only -- we wanted to retain ownership."

Like Perry and Debmar-Mercury, "Love That Girl!" producers are offering TV One a low-cost proposition in hopes the network will order a lot more episodes -- enough so that the investors can quickly amass enough episodes to make the show a viable commodity in the off-network rerun business. That's where the real money is.

"I did get the chance to go see his studio and worked with him for a brief period, and realized it was something I knew how to do," Evans said of Perry.

"Our goal is to obtain a rating and then get a major order. The business model would be to get distribution from [TV One] and they are going to be a profit participant in the project as well."

TV One wants "Love That Girl!" to improve on its "Martin" rerun lead-in ratings by 10 to 20 percent, Evans said. He has an "if-come" deal with the network, which, he explains, is new industry-speak for "if the ratings come, they will adhere to the agreement."

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