When Susan Taylor, the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, talks across a conference room, or writes editorials, or questions a subject on her new television show, her tone is the firm and personal one of a crusader.
First through the magazine, the premier life-style magazine for black women, and now through a 30-minute interview show, Taylor is advocating what she hopes are new images of black people and creating a dialogue on contemporary issues.
"Essence Communications Inc. [the parent company of the magazine and show] really sees itself as being responsible for delivering positive images of black people. Black men in this country are not portrayed in any positive light. It is so rare that you see brothers on television in any other position other than being collared on the nightly news," says Taylor. "While we love Gary Coleman and Webster [Emmanuel Lewis] and we think they are terrific actors, we think black children should see black children who live with black families. We certainly welcome 'The Cosby Show.' "
Taylor, as tall, straight and precise as a sword, visited Washington earlier this week to discuss "Essence, The Television Program," which debuts today at 1:30 p.m. on WRC (Channel 4). The show is hosted by Taylor, whose name has been at the top of Essence's masthead for the last three years. For the previous 10 years she was the magazine's fashion and beauty editor.
Ten years ago, says Taylor, 38, the magazine staff discussed a television project, but the costs were prohibitive. When they produced the show last year in New York, Taylor knew they had something special.
"People would pick up the telephone after it aired in New York, and it was on twice a week, and they wanted to continue the discussion," says Taylor, laughing quietly. Now syndicated and signed for 37 stations, she says the program will appeal to both genders and reach "just under 65 percent of black households."
The parent corporation invested $1 million in the project. After 14 years the magazine has built its paid circulation to 800,000 readers a month and has a readership of 2.9 million. Now the show is trying to capture part of that huge audience, but especially the black audience that watches 35 percent more television than their white counterparts, says Taylor.
Duplication between the magazine and the show will be minimal. "It is an opportunity to tell more inspiring stories. You are not going to find the same people and ideas in stories in the magazine and the program. What is the same is the philosophy. In both cases, the magazine and show are designed to make a difference in black people's lives and anyone else who wants good information that's useful."
On the show, New York filmmaker and journalist Felipe Luciano will do a segment on provocative issues called "Up Front."
Despite the small number of black non-comedy programs, Essence had a hard time taking the show to a national audience, its producers recount. The Chicago Tribune Co., the owner of the New York television station on which it appeared, did not pick up the show for syndication. The producers were turned down by several syndicators. According to Gene Davis, the supervising producer, "there is less interest in targeting programs than 10 years ago." But NBC got interested in the program at a trade show, and now it is produced at NBC studios in New York.
Today's show contains a chat with model Iman, sitting without makeup and talking about the car accident that almost ruined her face; Father George Clements, the Chicago priest who adopted two teen-agers; a brief nutrition session with singer Sheryl Lee Ralph; a lively discussion of single parenting, and a visit with singer Teddy Pendergrass, who now uses a wheelchair after a car accident.
The interviews with the famous, says Taylor, will have a different emphasis. "It gives us the opportunity to go beyond the glitter. Not just what is happening with your career, what is your latest record. But who are you, what are you feeling inside? Are you happy? Are you living your life the way you thought you would, the way you want to?"
In some markets, such as Washington, the program skips a week or switches times. But Taylor doesn't worry:
"We are so excited we refuse to be dissuaded by any inconvenience. We think the product is so strong that people will come back."