HBO has long thought itself the crème de la crème of premium television. Unfortunately for them, the televisual field is rapidly changing. As consumer demand for ‘prestige’ television shows increases, so too does the number of streaming outlets. Subscription streaming services as well as other broadcast channels, premium or otherwise, are looking to bolster their subscriber rolls. HBO’s President of Programming, Casey Bloys hopes to do that by guaranteeing, “something you can’t see anywhere else.” Enter Issa Rae.
Rae’s web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl rose quickly in popularity. Within months of its Youtube debut, it was profiled by NPR and the Washington Post. Viewers quickly became fans, and many invested in the show itself. Six episodes into the production of Awkward Black Girl Rae started a Kickstarter to help with production costs. They eventually raised over $56,000. Currently, the first episode, published in February 2011, has over two million views. In addition to being popular (and despite its low production values) Awkward Black Girl is also widely held as a good show: smart, funny, but also relevant. Black feminist media scholar Rebecca Wanzo claims that the show’s themes echo that of many shows at the time featuring millennial women as protagonists including, Girls (HBO, 2012-2017) and Broad City (web series, 2009-2011; Comedy Central, 2014-2019). HBO’s Insecure (2016-) is a reincarnation of Awkward Black Girl, with a wider scope and a larger budget. Many of the same themes and tropes of the original show remain but are re-imagined.
For HBO, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite moment, as the company is searching for shows that will bring them both critical acclaim and new subscribers, Issa Rae and her Insecure is a safe bet. Rae, an already proven writer, comes with a built-in fan base, many of whom likely don’t subscribe to HBO. This point is underscored by Rae’s appeal to fans halfway through season one to capitalize on a free month of HBONow. Additionally, this deal made Issa Rae a significant first. She is the first black woman to create and star in a premium cable series. In the current moment of uber niche markets, diversity is not just a buzzword; diverse content is valuable since it translates to capital--that is more subscribers. In this market, premium blackness reigns supreme.
Malone, Michael. “Loads Riding on HBO’s Fall Launches.” Broadcast & Cable, October 3, 2016.
Wanzo, Rebecca. “Precarious-Girl Comedy: Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Abjection Aesthetics.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 31, no. 2 (92) (September 1, 2016): 27–59. https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-3592565.