Black-oriented sitcoms gaining white viewers

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

For the first time since the early 1990s, when NBC’s “The Cosby Show” and “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” enjoyed mainstream success, two new sitcoms starring African Americans have crossed racial lines as broad-based hits this season.
ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” has been winning key demos in its time slot, and Fox’s “The Bernie Mac Show” premiered Nov. 14 with a double run that won the first half-hour among adults 18 to 49 and improved 4 percent on its lead-in for the second half-hour.
The success of both shows comes on the heels of industrywide criticism that the Big 4 broadcast networks aren’t offering programs featuring minority leads. “Diversity in television is clearly a priority, but when you get your foot in the door, you better have your `A-game’ ready,” said Don Reo, co-creator and executive producer of the Damon Wayans-led “My Wife and Kids.” “One of the things that we have in common with `Bernie Mac’ is [both are] shows that have charismatic stars and distinctive writing but [are] done in a way that is not dismissive or relegates African Americans to secondary roles. What is all the better is that white America is also identifying with these shows-so that means we’re doing our jobs.”
Larry Hyams, VP of audience analysis at ABC, citing special N-Power demo research from Nielsen Media Research, said “My Wife and Kids” has averaged a 10.7 rating among black adults 18 to 49 while turning in a 4.5 rating among white adults 18 to 49 this season in its 8 p.m. (ET) Wednesday time slot.
With African American viewers making up 11 percent of the TV universe and whites making up a significantly larger majority, Mr. Hyams estimated that the audience for “My Wife and Kids” among adults 18 to 49 is roughly 23 percent black.
In the case of “Bernie Mac’s” 9 p.m.-to-9:30 p.m. outing Nov. 14, it registered an 18.2 rating among black adults 18 to 49 and a 3.6 rating among white adults 18 to 49. A bigger key to that measurement in black viewers is that “Bernie Mac” is indexing a 331 score, Mr. Hyams said, which means the show is averaging 231 percent more black adults 18 to 49 compared with the mean demographic average. Similarly, he said, “My Wife and Kids” is indexing a 206 score in black adults, or 106 percent higher than the demo average.
“On a season-to-date basis, `My Wife and Kids’ is averaging a 4.9 rating in all adults 18 to 49, which ranks it 31st among all shows. But when you look at the composition and indexing in both races, it is getting strong sampling across the board,” Mr. Hyams said.
Larry Wilmore, executive producer and creator of “Bernie Mac,” said he created the show to appeal to a broad audience. “I just wanted to deal with universal themes and the generational push-and-pull of parent and child relationships,” he said. “If there is something we have learned, it is that there is nothing different about dysfunctional families, because it is part of everyone’s lives.”
Dana Walden, president of “Bernie Mac’s” producer, 20th Century Fox Television, said the show’s “humor cuts across all racial boundaries.”
“The universal themes and success of `The Simpsons’ did not have people just thinking the show was for animated Americans,” Ms. Walden joked. “Like `The Simpsons,’ `Bernie Mac’s’ writing is so sharp and universal in the way that it allows viewers to see the characters in relatable yet slightly exaggerated themes.”
Though Fox, UPN and The WB all used African American sitcoms to launch their networks, they mostly abandoned them down the line when they decided that going “mainstream” meant going “broad” with Caucasian-dominant sitcoms and dramas.
Ms. Walden said the networks have not in any way intended to block the development of minority-led sitcoms, but that it merely came down to executing the right concept.
“`Bernie Mac’ simply passed all of the thresholds,” she said. “It tested better, it screened better and clearly had more appeal than any of its competitors” in development at Fox.