Elijah McKinnon sees the future of television as revolutionary, fearless, and divine. As the executive director of the inclusive online platform Open Television (OTV), they’ve had exclusive insight into the groundbreaking work of Chicago filmmakers. And after spending the past six months traveling to places like Berlin and Johannesburg to produce OTV’s first international projects, McKinnon is ready to prove that they’re correct about where the medium can go.
“I came back feeling not only inspired by our resilience but our commitment to building long-lasting platforms for people of all identities to plug into,” McKinnon says. “I’m very excited about our efforts to intentionally manifest a global cohort of creatives, storytellers, and filmmakers that are ready to infiltrate media with content that has the power to change the world.”
The platform is well known for launching webseries like Brown Girls, Just Call Me Ripley, and The T, and for its fifth cycle, OTV is focusing on producing more pilots, short films, and experimental works, including work from outside Chicago for the first time. In the past OTV has premiered each season and then continued to show work with a series of live events at the Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring pilot screenings, live performances, and a chance to connect with other creatives. This year, all #OTVtonight gatherings will be digital, starting with the premiere on April 7 and continuing with several livestreams in May. While other networks and arts organizations are struggling with the pivot to online, it’s an art OTV has been perfecting for years.
“We’re in a special position of being a nimble, native-digital organization with little overhead so we’ve been able to keep working and serving our community,” says OTV founder Aymar Jean Christian. “Streaming, both on demand and live, has increased 50–70 percent on most platforms in the past two weeks, and the whole team is excited to offer something no one else is offering: artistic, specific, and groundbreaking original narratives for Black, Brown, queer, femme-identified, and other people for whom new content is relatively scarce.”
Along with its established online presence, OTV is using this time to elevate local artists and healers on Instagram, giving them a place to share self-care tips and what they’re working on in isolation. Creating more opportunities for interactions is key—Christian plans on experimenting with the #OTVtonight livestreams to include games and other meaningful ways of connecting with the audience and creatives.
The initial programming premiering on April 7 includes work from Detroit, Johannesburg, and Berlin, ranging from stories about Black trans women navigating life (Femme Queen Chronicles) to the lessons we can learn from an octopus (Seven of Tentacles). Throughout the year OTV will also be releasing plenty of locally made series as well, including Karan Sunil’s coming-of-age dramedy, Code-Switched; Sohib Boundaoui’s drama about the FBI’s surveillance of Bridgeview, Arabica; and Good Enough, McKinnon’s story about a Black queer family, which was commissioned by a group of researchers to incentivize young people to take PrEP to prevent HIV. All the series fall into the unique category of high-quality, thought-provoking, underrepresented storytelling on which OTV was built.
Even though their live events needed to be restructured, both Christian and McKinnon are taking sheltering in place in stride. “To be honest, I am thriving!” McKinnon says. “I’m a Black, queer, nonbinary baddie so any opportunity to cultivate stillness and space to breathe easy is a true gift that I value immensely.” And they have guidance for other artists trying to navigate the unknown waters of isolation. “The media landscape can be an incredibly noisy place, especially during times of crisis, so I believe it is imperative that creatives are mindful of their contribution to that frequency. My advice to creatives shifting their efforts online is to be mindful of accessibility, create opportunities for moments of wonder, operate from a place of clarity, and don’t lose sight of your end goal.” v