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A Different World

Source: Gary Null / Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Remember when Netflix added “A Different World” to its streaming catalog? I know I personally rejoiced at having this iconic Black series available to watch at any time with only a few taps on my touchscreen, it was all the buzz on Black Twitter, and the fantastic Black Girl Nerds even organized group live-tweet viewings.

Of course, that sense of community and enjoyment of quality Black programming need not be a sporadic event, and the type of groundbreaking racial attitudes and social commentary featured on “A Different World” exists in other shows and movies as well. This is what makes the new streaming entertainment service Unify a welcome and necessary addition to our entertainment options.

Unify is a premium online streaming service that both stars and serves the Black community. Unify programming is programming that showcases us, in the many ways that we shine in entertainment, with movies and TV shows spanning the 1960s to today, as well as extensive planned original content.

Unify is the vision of its founder, Dr. Donahue Tuitt, coming to fruition after nearly a decade of vision and development. Dr. Tuitt has decades of experience in the entertainment industry as a writer and independent film director, and he also taught at the secondary school level, worked on Wall Street, and earned his doctorate in Educational Administration. As a television producer, Dr. Tuitt has had a hand in numerous BET series, notably “Sunday Best,” which he says is a favorite because it “married [his] love for television with [his] faith.”

Dr. Tuitt told me via e-mail, “I began exploring what it would take to start a TV network dedicated to African American programming about 10 years ago. I wanted to build an entertainment home, not simply a channel, for Black families.” Indeed, it’s clear from the moment you look at the Unify site that this is not just some sort of digital ghettoization, but rather a true celebration of the achievements of and variety in Black entertainment over the years.

Dr. Tuitt says, “I spent 4 years studying the process to start a traditional channel, and dug deeper into the marketplace. This was a reality check. My vision of creating a one-stop destination couldn’t be satisfied with a traditional channel.” Netflix was then emerging, and Dr, Tuitt began studying their business model and shifted his sights to the streaming platform to fill what I call an entertainment hole.

His “lightbulb moment” came just over two years ago. He says that in July 2013, “I cancelled my subscription to a streaming service because there was nothing there that I wanted to watch. I love all types of television, but I really love looking at Black faces and seeing Black families. I said to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not paying for this service anymore because it doesn’t fulfill my needs.’ I sat in my room and went from frustration, to boredom, to questioning whether I was the only one who felt like this. I wondered who in the world could my nieces be watching on television that looked like them. I grew up seeing my Black culture on television, and was disappointed with the [present-day] options on traditional television and on streaming services. I wanted my nieces to have access to the great television shows I had growing up. Well, since I work in television, the lightbulb went off.”

That certainty that representation matters and the frustration when we don’t see ourselves reflected in much of mainstream entertainment spurred Dr. Tuitt on, and today Unify is in its pre-order phase, with full launch set for February 2016. The website is already offering a wealth of programming, however, completely free right now.

Many of the contemporary classics of the 1990s and early aughts, a golden age of Black television, are there for you, including “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Moesha,” and the infinitely re-watchable “In Living Color.” Current film offerings include “Purple Rain,” “House Party,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Tap,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Brian’s Song,” and “Bulworth,” as well as cult classics like “Uptown Saturday Night” and “The Last Dragon” and classic classics like Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

There are also TV dramas like “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and the gritty musical series “Fame,” as well as variety shows like “Robert Townsend’s Partners in Crime,” and family programming like “The Proud Family.”

What really blew me away about Unify, however, was the creative team’s obvious respect for our roots as Black people in entertainment. I was happily impressed to see that I can watch episodes of some of our older and more obscure programs, like “That’s My Mama,” “Get Christie Love!,” “Room 222,” “The Mod Squad,” and “The Flip Wilson Show.”

These are available to stream for free right now during the pre-order period, and these movies and TV shows are only a fraction of what will eventually be available, yet the current offerings are still impressive. I had to inquire about the process of acquiring streaming rights.

“There have been tons of hurdles to clearing the licensing rights,” says Dr. Tuitt. “From the legal end, some shows are so old that streaming rights were never negotiated when they were created. That impacts the studio’s ability to even license them for online viewing. It’s hard for a streaming service to exist in a world with conglomerates like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. There is a sense that no one can compete with the giant companies. Well, if that’s true, why are there 10 food options in a food court at the mall? People have different appetites for food, and I believe they have different appetites for entertainment!”

Unify has licensing terms in place with some studios already, and Unify executives are still negotiating with others. The entire industry is working to translate older entertainment to new media platforms, but it’s especially valuable for Unify to clear that hurdle because many people today are not aware of how fiercely we’ve been slaying for decades. If you’ve never seen Nell Carter on “Gimme a Break,” I suggest you head on over to UnifyMe.tv right now and get your life.

Unify’s dedication to honoring the legacy of Black people is clearest in its first original programming, the 24-part docuseries “The Legacy: 75 Years of Blacks on Television.” Through extensive footage and interviews, this series celebrates our huge presence on the small screen from Ethel Waters’ landmark television appearances in 1939 to “Empire” today. It’s available for free streaming right now, and Unify also has eight sitcoms, three dramas, and four movies in development.

Dr. Tuitt’s all-time favorite movie, the indisputable gem “Coming to America,” is also currently streaming, and through the magic of Hollywood connections and a director friend reaching out, he now has a champion and Unify ambassador in one of the stars of the movie, Vanessa Bell Calloway. Her enthusiasm for this platform is tangible when she tells me, “I had to help in some way because this service is what we need. How could you not support something like Unify? Donahue and I spoke and we connected right away. I’ve been placing calls and emailing friends in Hollywood and across the country because we have to make this a tremendous success. Unify is giving future generations access to our great programming, but it’s also using media to strengthen our people. That’s really, really special.”

Dr. Tuitt is thrilled at her support, but he’s also quick to add, “Even though we are reaching out to other celebrities, UnifyMe.tv isn’t about ‘Hollywood.’ It’s about using entertainment to empower Black America, and make America as a whole stronger.” Referring to the name he chose, he says “When people are unified, they are utterly unbeatable.” Unify is truly looking to build a platform that will enrich society, stating, “Our relationship with subscribers is a family partnership, rather than simply delivering a product for purchase.”

Check out “The Legacy,” or any of the other programming being offered right now at UnifyMe.tv, and follow along on Twitter and Facebook for more additions to the service. You can pre-order Unify now for $5.99/month or $70/year, and enjoy quality Black content across multiple genres and for all generations.

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