With the rise of platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, streaming content is the new black. But streaming can also, itself, be black. That, at least, is the goal of KweliTV, a Web-based subscription service that champions the stories by and about the global black community. Their motto: "Preserving the African Diaspora.”
“The actual owners of [mainstream media] typically don’t look like us,” said DeShuna Spencer, founder and CEO of the service. “Preserving it really means preserving it for ourselves because we know that a people who are in charge of their own content are going to tell their stories authentically versus someone that’s not a part of that community. They won’t preserve our stories as well as someone who looks like me.”
Spencer, a radio host and founder and publisher of the online magazine emPower, created KweliTV after being frustrated with the options both cable television and other streaming sites provided; they either presented stereotypical images of black people or limited the amount and types of black content one could consume.
FOR THE RECORD
11:50 a.m: An earlier version of this article incorrectly capitalized the name of the CEO of KweliTV. Her name is DeShuna Spencer.
But the road to creation wasn’t simple or easy: In 2012, when Spencer first conceived of KweliTV, streaming itself was seen as lacking staying power. Four years later — but just under a year since launching its beta site, while working to develop an app — KweliTV has 11,000 registered users consuming over 200 independent films, documentaries, Web shows and news programming about and from varying black perspectives. In addition to distribution, the platform is also in the early stages of producing its own content, including an original news vertical.
The service has multiple tiers, similar to its more well-known competitors, with the yearly plan at $19.99 ($49.99 after the beta period ends) and the monthly one at $2.99 ($5.99). Members also can pay 99 cents for 24-hour rentals.
The Times spoke with Spencer weeks before KweliTV officially launches (on June 1) about the process of starting a tech company without venture capitalist funding (money came from a business grant competition and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that raised $6,430 of a $50,000 goal), soliciting non-stereotypical content from independent black filmmakers and how the service fits into the #OscarsSoWhite conversation.
Where did the idea for KweliTV come from?
Honestly, it was just out of frustration. My husband and I were tired of the millions of channels on cable and not seeing anything that we really like. I was frustrated with how particularly black women are represented in mainstream media. Of course it’s all not negative, but most of the shows where black women are leading are reality shows that don’t depict how I live my life. I’ve never thrown a drink in someone’s face, and my friends — we support each other; we’re not jealous or catty.
My husband and I decided to cut the cord and got a particular streaming platform that everyone knows. Again, I was very disappointed with the lack of “black content” that spoke to me and my culture. I began thinking that it would be great if there was a black streaming platform that had these really great independent films and documentaries, and from a global perspective because I’m always curious to hear and see how other people who look like me live all across the world. Because it didn’t exist, I was crazy enough to say that I’m going to do it.
With a background in journalism, how did you go about actually making this happen?
You can’t go to Barnes and Noble and get a book called “How to Start A Streaming Platform.” I just tapped into my network and resources …[and] enlisted the help of one of my magazine board members. I knew how I wanted it to work, but he helped me figure out how to take it from my head and put it on paper. But I knew I needed some type of money because no one is going to do anything for free.
In securing the funding, were people receptive to the idea?
I wrote an article titled “Diary of a (Mad) Black Woman Without VC Funding” where I talk about the process. I applied for this business competition in 2012 for women journalists who wanted to start media companies. I became a finalist, but didn’t win. They gave me some feedback on my application and ... they were not sure whether streaming would be something that would be around long term. This was before Showtime and HBO and all these networks had streaming platforms; it was basically just Hulu and Netflix.
In early 2014, I found out about a business grant competition for journalists of color looking to start a media organization. The deadline was two days later, so I spent the next 48 hours preparing my application, repurchasing the domain names again — I had let them expire — everything. I eventually won the competition. I got the money two days before Christmas — the best Christmas present ever. I used the $20,000 to build the beta, and we released it July 2015.
Where does the name KweliTV come from?
[Kweli] means “truth,” in Swahili. I wanted something that made sense, but wasn’t just like BlackMoviesOnline.com — not to knock those that have names likes that, but I wanted people to know that this isn’t just a streaming platform with a bunch of black movies. This is a movement. There is no stereotypical content on KweliTV. We’re not looking to have guys shooting each other and everyone getting killed, or Ray Ray running from the cops. If people want that type of content, they can go somewhere else. Our goal is to be truthful. We want to show a different side of our community, from a global perspective, because the truth is not just made in America.
How do you go about getting the content?
We allow people to submit to us, and we look to see if it fits what we want to do. I also specifically solicit filmmakers from film festivals. Because we're bootstrapping, I can't go to the festivals across the country, but I do extensive research, watch the trailers and read the reviews. As a journalist, I can find anyone’s email — except Oprah and maybe President Obama. When we launched our beta, we already had 30 brave souls who entrusted me with their films. As time has gone on, when I reach out, no matter where they are in the world, they have actually heard of us.
What that does say to you, that filmmakers know of KweliTV and aren't necessarily waiting or resting on the hope of a distribution deal?
It shows that the industry is changing. A lot of independent filmmakers are taking back their content versus leaving it to a third party. Back in the day, when I worked at Blockbuster, a straight-to-DVD film was looked down on, not really knowing that these films, some of which are actually good, go straight to DVD because they don’t have a distribution deal [from a studio].
People look at folks like Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee and the other top black filmmakers and think that is how things go. But there are thousands of filmmakers who’ve done great work and whose films are collecting dust because they couldn’t find a distributor. That bothers me, and that’s why, at the end of the day, I started KweliTV.
And when they do, they're often marketed directly to black people as if other cultures can't relate. I'm reminded of the Twitter conversation "Beyond the Lights" director Gina Prince-Bythewood jump-started last year about the treatment of the so-called "black film" by Netflix, and broader Hollywood.
That’s a perfect example for why KweliTV exists. We don’t have a “black” genre because our entire goal is to support black content. It’s easier for people to find our romantic comedies or sci-fi or histories because it is segmented in the way it should be.
I think that there is this idea that black people only want to watch certain things and that white people only want to watch certain things. Of course, as a black person, I tend to gravitate toward stories that affect me or speak to me or feature people who look like me. But sometimes I want to sit back and watch “Ted” as well.
Because of Netflix and others really missing the opportunity … platforms like mine exist because we’re not only concerned about the bottom line and saying “This is what we think black people will watch.” As a black person, I know what my community will watch, and it’s more than what they assume we will watch.
KweliTV has partnered with Ebony Magazine for the Color TV contest. Tell me about that.
Ebony also believes in supporting black filmmakers. So every quarter we have a film contest where filmmakers of African descent from around the world can submit their films [under] different themes. The current theme is sci-fi. The reason why we chose that is because that’s what audiences want to see. They’re tired of the sidekick black guy that gets killed five minutes into the movie. They want to see us starring in these films.
The winners receive an article on Ebony.com, and the film streams on KweliTV. We’ll be expanding that support [for filmmakers] in the coming months, but the next deadline is June 7.
And the announcement of this came around this year's #OscarsSoWhite conversation. Where does this competition fit into that conversation?
I think it’s important because, like Jada Pinkett Smith said, instead of begging people to be a part, we’re creating our own thing. If they invite us to the party, great; if not, that’s OK too. Historically, when we talk about our community — and this is why we’re picky about our content — people say that if it is by or about someone or something black, that its caliber is [automatically] less than or not as good. If you get an NAACP Image Award, that’s good, but if you get that Oscar, you’ve really made it. Why is an Oscar more important than the Image Awards? Because we’ve been spoon-fed and taught that black is not as good as everything else. By having KweliTV, which has quality content, we’re taking back the notion that if it’s black, it’s not as good.
What do you hope KweliTV becomes post-launch?