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Whatcha cookin’?

by Brian Clarey

News came down the pipe late last week that Greensboro-based Black Network Television, a somewhat smaller and more provincial cousin to the national Black Entertainment Television network more commonly know as BET, is gearing up to sue the city.

On Monday, City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Kahn voiced Greensboro’s intention to fight the lawsuit, which seeks damages after council declined to give the network, owned by husband-and-wife team Michael and Ramona Woods, a $300,000 economic-development loan with a 10- year repayment period, with interest accruing just the first year.

It’s a sweetheart deal, one council tentatively agreed to back in June, but after some public outcry and the discovery that the borrowers already had a couple mortgages on the $975,000 home they offered as collateral, council voted 6-3 against the loan.

It’s really too bad, because I know a good bit about city government, and even more about television sitcoms. And if the city of Greensboro wants to get into the television business, well I think that would liven up the beat considerably.

Imagine for a moment that council were to fund this TV show, which is slated to star Kim Fields, who played Tootie on “The Facts of Life,” and BernNadette Stanis, who played Thelma on “Good Times.”

Frankly, they had me at Tootie. Anyway, imagine if we were to give $300,000 of our collected tax dollars to this show. Word would get out pretty quick amongst the television industry that there was a city in North Carolina funding sitcoms, and before you know it we’d have Byron Allen or a lesser Wayans brother marching into town with their hands out. Council meetings might become protracted versions of Hollywood pitch meetings.

“It’s like ‘Ghost Hunters’ meets ‘The Love Boat,’ except it takes place in the ruins of a dilapidated hotel, and everybody’s dead. You don’t figure out that part until the end, though. Half a million ought to do it.”

Seriously, though, $300,000 is pretty cheap for even a half season in the world of nationally syndicated television shows, where a single episode can cost between $100,000 and a cool $1 million to produce.

And it’s not like cities don’t fund the arts all the time. In all three cities of the Triad, councils cough up cash for public art projects, nonprofit arts councils, symphonies and theater ventures. And though I am unable to find a single instance of a city finding a TV sitcom — the closest I can find is “Austin City Limits,” a seriously awesome music show set in Austin, Texas and funded in part by that city’s convention center — that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

Of course, the loan fell through because of a breach of contract — the existence of the second mortgage was not known to the city until after the initial paperwork was filed. But that means the city still has a loose $300,000 that is ostensibly earmarked for a project like this. And if we pass on the Tootie project, which we clearly have, then I submit that we should use that money, which amounts to less than one one-hundredth of a percent of our city’s annual budget, for a similar venture.

Greensboro filmmaker Harvey Robinson, who works these days under the Monkeywhale banner, is currently putting together a feature documentary about the Warnersville neighborhood. When I told him this summer about “Whatcha Cookin’” and the city’s financial support of the project, he almost swallowed his tongue. He said he could make three docs for that much money.

There are plenty of other filmmakers in town trying to create great work — names like Louis Bekoe, Jaysen Buterin, Micah Moore leap immediately to mind — with funding as their only obstacle. A little support from city government would go a long way with guys like this.

But then we’d have the problem of city council meeting as pitch session, which might not be such a bad thing. We could designate one hour per month to hear three-minute pitches from locals — and only locals — choosing one project at the end of the year to fund.

Just in case, I’m getting my proposals in order.

How about the very first American reality show to take place in a closed landfill?

Or a full-length documentary about Wrangler blue jeans. Can you smell the synergy?

Or wait, I got it: a one-hour serialized drama about a beleaguered weekly newspaper editor who has to deal with breaking news, sketchy sources and the digital revolution while trying to raise a family in a small Southern city. Maybe I can get Ted Lange, who played Isaac the bartender on “The Love Boat,” in a recurring role as a photographer or maybe a community activist who always wants coverage for his events.

I would totally watch a show like that… if I could find someone to pay for it.

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