Roland McFarland Biography
Studied Speech and Theater, Began Television Career, Moved to Fox Broadcasting, Supported Community Initiatives
Roland McFarland is senior vice president of broadcast standards and practices at Fox Broadcasting, overseeing broadcast standards for Fox's prime time, late night, and children's programming, in addition to comedy and drama development and on-air promotions. In the course of a 30-year career, he has worked on numerous popular television shows on ABC and Fox, monitoring accuracy, appropriateness, and potential positive or negative impact.
Studied Speech and Theater
McFarland was born on August 13, 1940, in Devers, a small town in eastern Texas, the fourth of seven children born to Booker and Ada McFarland. His father was an engineer for Southern Pacific Railroad in Texas and Louisiana; his mother had been a nurse and midwife, "the only nurse to the only doctor in that county for 25 years," McFarland told Contemporary Black Biography. The family moved to Baytown, near Houston, when he was a child, following his father's work at the Standard Oil Company.
After completing junior high in segregated Texas, McFarland was sent to California, where his older sister was living, to attend Lincoln High School in San Diego. "I did the same thing with a younger brother once I was married," McFarland told CBB. "That was our way of supporting each other and assuring ourselves the best life."
In San Diego, McFarland was a cross-country and track enthusiast but, encouraged by a teacher, Polly Mayne, he discovered that he excelled at public speaking and drama. He became the captain of the school speech team, competing at interscholastic events. "I remember finishing cross country meets and changing from running togs into tie and shirt and going to City Hall for a debate with rival schools in the area," he recalled to CBB. His abilities, he believed, were inherited from his mother, who "was and still is a tremendous public speaker and avid reader."
McFarland graduated from high school in 1958 and attended San Diego State College on scholarship, majoring in speech arts. McFarland studied both acting and directing, and wrote one-act plays. He became close friends with Cleavon Little, a young black actor who went on to appear on film and television. "We flipped a coin," McFarland said to CBB, "to see who would compete for a scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He won the coin flip, and I stayed on the west coast to focus on theater and television."
Began Television Career
After graduating from college in 1961, McFarland spent most of the 1960s working as an actor and director, first for the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and then, in Los Angeles, for the repertory company of the Inner City Cultural Theater, a group with high-profile supporters and associates, including Sidney Poitier and Frank Silvera. Someone from ABC Television saw McFarland on stage and invited him to ABC for a meeting. "I thought: oh good, I'm going to get a show," McFarland told CBB. "But when I met with the executive, he asked if I wanted to join the network. I didn't know what that meant at the time. I was married, I had a child, I said sure, I'll try this on until I get another role acting or directing. Flash forward for the rest of my life!"
McFarland began work at ABC in 1970. His first job was as a page in guest relations—where he was able to get a broad overview of production—and he soon joined the department of broadcast standards as an editor. In his new position as "the person who in simpler times was known as the censor," according to U.S. News & World Report, McFarland was assigned children's shows and a popular situation comedy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He went on to work on a number of ABC's classic television shows from the 1970s and 1980s, including The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Starsky and Hutch, and Dynasty.
Unlike many executives in broadcast standards, McFarland did not train as a lawyer. He believed that his background in theater made him sympathetic to writers and producers as well as responsible to the audience. "I'd done everything from directing to set design to lighting, even sewing!" he told CBB. "I really identified with the process." McFarland believed himself to be "part of a creative team" more involved with the early stages of show development rather than in editing and censoring. "We're involved from the time the story is pitched to signing off on the 'air print' that's going to be broadcast," he told CBB. "Censorship is a small part of our day."
Moved to Fox Broadcasting
In 1989, McFarland was approached to join the fledgling Fox Broadcasting network. McFarland believed that moving there would be "folly," he told CBB. Fox only offered one night of shows and industry pundits believed it could not compete with the "big three" of ABC, NBC, and CBS. But Fox survived, expanding to three nights of programming by 1990. In 1993 a former colleague, now working at Fox, persuaded McFarland to "walk across the street" to become director of broadcast standards.
McFarland soon adjusted from working for a department of more than 50 people to a team of just three, keeping busy with hits such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, In Living Color, and its biggest ongoing success, The Simpsons, which "still has issues," McFarland told CBB, "and still turns me gray." In 2001, a character called Roland McFarland was murdered in an episode of The X-Files. "It's part of the price you pay for being an irritant," says McFarland. "The producers have finally found a way to kill me off!"
As Fox expanded its programming to seven days a week, McFarland's workload and travel schedule grew. By 2004, McFarland had a staff of ten, overseeing all aspects of programming except for news and sports. The rise of cable television in the 1980s resulted in increased competition for networks as well as increased public acceptance of stronger language and subject matter, as did the more recent rise of reality television.
The New York Times, calling MTV and Fox "perhaps the most daring" in their programming, recently quoted McFarland talking about acceptability as "an ever expanding and retracting elastic band." A 2004 article in the International Herald Tribune suggested that the band is about to retract, because "networks' standards and practices divisions are being strengthened after they were scaled back about a decade ago." McFarland, quoted in that article, projected "a greater degree of separation between networks and cable, with broadcasters settling in as the family medium." In his interview with CBB, McFarland described monitoring standards today as "very challenging—gauging America's taste, following and not leading, keeping a finger on the pulse of public acceptance. In programming, if you get 50 percent public acceptance, it's a hit. We have to be on the mark every day." Television shows, he said, are "guests in the home of viewers in this country, and need to exercise decorum."
Supported Community Initiatives
An advocate of diversity in television, McFarland is proud that Fox "developed a lot of shows with strong African-American characters," he told CBB. He personally brokered the deal to bring the NAACP Image Awards to Fox, even though the organization had an antagonistic relationship with the network in the mid-1990s, complaining to the FCC that Fox "has brought the greatest debasement of taste, character, quality, and decency in television history," according to a 1995 story in U.S. News & World Report.
McFarland served as chair of the Image Awards for three years in the late 1980s, and has also served on the boards of a number of other organizations, including the San Diego Alumni Association, the Chrysalis Foundation for the Homeless, and the Challengers Boys and Girls Club of America. He currently sits on the board of directors of both the Hollywood/Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP and the Entertainment Industries Council. He is most proud, he told CBB, of his work representing the entertainment industry on the director's council of public representatives of the National Institutes of Health, serving on the board from 1999 until 2002, working to find "a better method of disseminating public health messages."
McFarland has two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1981 he married Paulette McFarland, a teacher in early childhood development. After more than thirty years in broadcast standards, McFarland believes that he's "made a difference in the culture and entertainment industry," as he told CBB. "No matter where I am around the world, I see a television show that I had something to do with. It's an amazing realization of the impact of this medium and how diligent we have to be in crafting messages."
International Herald Tribune, March 16, 2004, p. 13.
New York Times, February 5, 2003, p. E1.
U.S. News & World Report, September 11, 1995, p. 68.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Contemporary Black Biography conducted on November 1, 2004.
—Paula J.K. Morris
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