“I’d rather say I’m going to a store to work as a cashier versus coaching somebody on fighting for ratings,” Sonia Armstead said in a lively conversation that veered from reality TV to the responsibility that comes with being among a small number of Black women television producers. As one half of the duo behind Powerhouse Productions, Inc, Armstead and co-CEO Rochelle Brown have developed and produced a range of food and reality programming including Fresh, Food, Fast with Emeril Lagasse and 2012 NAACP Image Award-nominee Save My Son.
Referring specifically to Save My Son in which education activist Dr. Steve Perry intervened in the lives of young, endangered Black men, Brown makes a distinction between the “reality” that has become synonymous with catfights and melodrama, and the harsh realities many people deal with on a daily basis. “People were arrested. People were running away. People were on drugs.” She added, “When we chose to do that project, we felt like somebody could watch this and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s my son,’ and try to help them.”
The duo is keenly aware of their responsibility to viewers. With few Blacks creating or producing programming of any kind—even as a recent Nielsen report shows that African-Americans watch more television than any other group—Armstead knows, “There are some young impressionable women out there who look at TV as the gospel.” Brown adds, “People are watching shows and then comparing women to something you might see on [Real] Housewives or Basketball Wives. Everybody doesn’t live their life like that. Everybody is not that confrontational. …[G]reat programs that come up like Black Girls Rock,” she says, are “like a breath of fresh air for everybody.”
In the highly competitive field of television production, Brown admits it can be challenging to compete with some reality entertainment. “You can’t erase what people are seeing, so some of the buffoonery makes it hard,” Brown says. “You have to actually try to show [networks] why sometimes the good outweighs the bad.”
What’s kept the Telly award-winning pair going strong the past 11 years is their focus on building a brand to outlast current programming trends. For example, when it comes to selecting projects to produce, Armstead says they make sure to protect the brands of the people they work with because the talent is an extension of their own brand. “We didn’t want to be labeled [among the networks] as the girls who do the crazy shows.”
Alongside reputation, it’s about relationships.
“You create those sisterhoods, so when the opportunities arise those doors are open… with people who know your work, who know you can deliver and have your back no matter what,” Armstead says.
Brown advises aspirants interested in breaking into television to start making connections of their own.
“Find mentors. Find places you can intern and form strategic relationships,” she says, noting that face-time and interpersonal skills are critical to longevity in the industry. “In this [younger] generation, they want to put everything in an email and everything in a text; and this day you must be able to vouch for yourself and rally for what you want to do.”
But networking, and being able to sell yourself and your project is just part of what it takes.
“You have to do the work,” Brown says. “Doesn’t matter what college you went to when you are out in the field. …[H]ands on experiences are key.”