ABC News is premiering a six-episode series on Tuesday that is being promoted as something far different for traditional network newsmagazine: Soul of a Nation focuses on the Black experience in America, or as ABC News executive Marie Nelson put it on Friday, “The series expands the vision of Black life in America in a way broadcast TV journalism has never done.”
Although a preview of the first episode was not available, a preview clip showed that this was different than the traditional, 60 Minutes-style newsmagazine: Sterling K. Brown will guest host. It will feature Byron Pitts’ interview with Danny Glover, in a segment on reparations, and Pierre Thomas’ sitdown with Capitol police officer Harry Dunn, but the debut also will include a spoken word performance by Common and close out with a musical performance from John Legend (who is also interviewed by Adrienne Bankert). A mini-documentary from ESPN’s The Undefeated will focus on racial reckoning in film in the Black community.
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“The way we have been talking about the show, internally, was sort of a news variety show,” Robe Imbriano, executive producer along with Eric Johnson, said during the network’s Winter Press Tour panel. “And we are covering real life. We are telling these stories. We are out in the field doing very cinematic, sort of short film documentary features.” Also planned is a segment called “In the Kitchen,” a conversation on the latest news, which in the debut will be moderated by Sunny Hostin and feature Brown and Angela Rye.
“When we were putting these ideas together in this format together, I want my mother to see herself in the content that we are doing,” Johnson said. “I want my little brother to see himself in the content that we are creating. My grandmother. …But we also want everybody to know that they can find themselves, too, in Black storytelling.”
Other segments will focus on the Tulsa massacre, coming up on its 100th anniversary, which Johnson said was “essentially a true crime story,” with the show getting exclusive access to the graves being discovered in that city. In addition, Linsey Davis has a conversation with Nick Cannon, and in the coming weeks Andra Day, Cynthia Erivo and H.E.R. will be featured in performances. Other guest hosts include Jemele Hill and Marsai Martin.
Nelson, who is senior vice president, integrated content strategy, for ABC News, said that the division’s specials, including one on Juneteenth and a 20/20 on Breonna Taylor, drew Black audiences of “40 something percent.”
“But what I always remind folks is that the majority of people who tune in to watch those programs are white audiences,” she said. “So we know that this where we have that opportunity to create even more of a bridge to understand.”
Imbriano said that “after George Floyd was killed, one of the things that a lot of Americans realized is that they really didn’t understand these stories of know these stories. This is a way of presenting them in one show, but it is not for one people.”
The producers also say that they plan to try to get a diversity on the political spectrum, including a segment on the pro-life and pro-choice moments within the Black community, as well as to capture the differences in generations, with a segment on Afrofuturism.
Nelson said that when she was growing up in the 1970s, when a Black person, entertainer or cultural figure appeared on screen, “we would literally call our friends and family, as our early version of social media. Those were exciting, monumental, life shaping moments to see someone who looked like me represented on screen. But often they weren’t truly telling our story, not with agency and authenticity and fullness.” She also said that she idolized a figure on 60 Minutes: Andy Rooney.
“I thought it was incredible that this guy got to have the last word on national television each week, and that he got to bring his thoughts and ideas about life into the public square,” she said. “And when I think about this moment, and the idea that we know that there are going to be a whole other generation of kids and grownups for that matter, who get to see themselves in the experiences and the storytelling” of the show.
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