Cable is coming," Avon Killion said, chopping the fingers of one hand into the palm of the other, "and the marketplace is not going to remain the same."
He was describing an energizing groundswell of opportunity in the electronic industry. While the emphatic Killion, program director of the new Howard University television station, only meant to state a fact, he also summed up both the hopes and anxieties of producers, directors and other media talents in the face of far-reaching changes expected in the television industry in the years ahead.
As talents across the nation are mobilizing to meet as yet untold hours of unfilled air time, opportunities in Washington are expected to be especially rich. Taken together, events evolving here -- the birth of the new Howard station, cable's approach in the suburbs, and the start of the first black-oriented cable network in Georgetown last January -- all spell promise and progress to interested local parties.
Killion, at 29 one of the only three black programming directors of public television stations in the country, two weeks ago assisted in the birth of Howard University's WHMM Channel 32. Gaunt and Kinetic in his three-piece suit, the new director hobnobbed with smiling Howard administrators, posed for the press and spoke of the new station's potential to provide innovative programming.
A week later he was interviewed as he headed home to change into his overalls before returning to the station to help nail up shelves for the video library. Already piles of new tapes were spilling into the station's hallways.
Apparently no job is too low if you "plan to be in the vanguard of excellence in programming for our audiences, especially minorities who have certainly been underserved," Killion said.
The softspoken, hammer-toting Killion may not fit the image of the rich profiteering TV magnate, but he is nevertheless a prominent new figure in the competitive Washington television industry.
Along with a number of other mostly young, well-educated blacks who began their careers with the desire to improve the images of blacks on the air, Killion is part of an aggressive movement to make Washington a new communications mecca in which blacks will play a formative role as producers and directors as well as entertainers. He and his enterprising colleagues see a wide-open field where energy, talent and ingenuity will reap a handsome return.
"There are so many kinds of distribution technology -- cable, satellite, video cassettes, and no programming to meet it," explained Larry Bryant, a 30-year-old Washington native who has worked in television since his undergraduate days at American University. "We're going to meet that need for programming."
With his partner Rhozier (Roach) Brown, 36, Bryant heads a video company called Labero Inc., which produces and markets commercials, private tapings, and most recently a well-received pilot for public television.
Like Brown and Bryant, other blacks interested in the industry have focused increasingly on the production side, behind the camera, where the responsibility rests for developing the kinds of shows audiences, especially blacks, will want to watch. Their interest has spurred them to explore the field and define the jobs, functions and titles.
"Directors are the technicians, but producers make the aesthetic decisions," said 31-year old Claudia Sampson, who stumbled into television in New York eight years ago by piecing together a show as a favor for a friend. She eventually worked here with WETA as an assistant producer and is now with an independent video company called Productions Inc.
"I made an observation," she said of her first show, "that the people on camera were not the people who had the power." She focused on the power, as did Bryant.
"The producer is responsible for delivering the final product," he says. "What the show consists of, and who, and how it will be done. We have to know what equipment is available, and what people are supposed to do. We don't need to know how to take pictures -- neither of us is even into taking photographs -- but we need to know the difference between a good cameraman and a bad one."
Blacks who work in commercial television perhaps best understand the need for independent programming. Channel 7's Sylvia Cordy has felt the barbs of being accused of capitulating to the station's demand for bland, noncontroversial programming. "There are people who say 'Look Sylvia, you're just a token,' and that may be true," said Cordy, referring to her position as manager of public affairs. "But I cite myself as an example; when you have blacks in production, they will make sure blacks are included.As my station can tell you, I speak out all the time."
For precisely that reason, most of the independents look forward to control beyond the production process and sidestepping the networks altogether. In the style of independent producers of feature-length films, Bryant and Brown buy and use their own equipment, hire their own crews and write and compose their own material.
"There are very few blacks distributing the product, which is the ultimate to produce and distribute your own product, and to own the means for doing it," said Bryant, who spent five years as a reporter with Channel 5's "Black News." In 1976, he left Channel 5 to open up shop with Brown, who also worked at the station. They briefly considered moving Labero to a city with a more established television industry.
But like other members of the Washington media, they vetoed the move because "New York is full of these kinds of operations," Brown said. "And there's a black market here. But we also knew that very few blacks had a chance to get employment inside the television industry. We thought we could start something up and generate that kind of employment here and hopefully break the ice."
Washington also offers, they believe, unique opportunities for moving into the industry on the crest of the wave while the changes are still taking place. t"Black people have always been seeing things happen but haven't been able to move it on until it's already in place," Bryant said. "But things are changing faster everyday and we've got to be able to move with them."
One of the most significant changes is the coming of cable, which most television writers speak of with a combination of fear and excitement. Although cable is, by liberal estimates, at least five years away from operation in private homes in the District, planning around it has already begun.
"All of a sudden we're going to have the choice of 40 stations," Avon Killion said. Now that WHMM is on the air, he is ultimately responsible for keeping Washington tuned to it. "And the honeymoon's going to be over in a couple of months. If we're going to survive, we've eventually got to have a service that people will watch, that supercedes even racial considerations. After all, you're competing for people's spare time, and there are a lot of options.
"If we don't provide something that you will want to see, you'll watch another station, or maybe get a drink, or go to the gym. We can't afford to offer services that are duplications. So when we explore the black experience, we'll want to do so in a depth you wouldn't find anywhere else."
Of course, money is also a consideration. As Bryant says, successful involvement in the field will accelerate as financiers recognize the potential of blacks in the industry. "Black people are not a priority now," he says, ". . . (investors) are only beginning to realize the money black people can make for the broadcast media."
Specialization, he said, such as black programming, is the wave of the future. "The media is going through the same kinds of changes as the print media. A few years ago there were only a few magazines that everyone read. . . ."
"Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post," partner Brown interjected. "Now there are thousands -- like Golf Digest, Hunter's magazine -- geared to specific interests."
"Cable," finished Bryant, "will open up 80 to 100 channels on everyone's TV. And we're going to provide programming for that. It's going to be because people will be watching and they'll be watching things that relate to their lives. Times have changed. Black people spend $70 billion a year and advertisers want a piece of that. Everybody's going to be important."