Viewership Splits Along Racial Lines

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Thirty years ago, if African American viewers wanted to see black performers on TV, their choices were limited to, roughly, “Soul Train,” “Good Times” and the waning days of “The Flip Wilson Show.”
Today that universe has expanded considerably. Not only is UPN programming entire nights with series featuring predominantly black casts, but cable and premium networks are aggressively targeting black demographics as well.
Additionally, the Big 4 networks have slowly begun to make progress in racially diversifying their casts. But with the exception of football and other sports, black viewers generally are choosing to watch programs with black performers in a black milieu over choices that could be called more mainstream.
The divergence between the top 10 programs among African American households and the top 10 shows among all viewers is so great that, based on the Nielsen ratings, only a handful of shows can be said to be popular across racial lines, “Monday Night Football,” “CSI” and “American Idol” among them.
UPN’s “Girlfriends” earns a 19.2 rating among black households and is its most-watched show in that demo, but it rates only a 2.8 when all U.S. TV households are factored. On the flip side, fans of “Friends” are mourning the end of that series’ long run, but among African American households the show ranks only 49th. “Everybody Loves Raymond,” one of CBS’ reigning hits, ranks 105th.
“On Monday nights, we have an 80-20 split between African American audiences and nonblack audiences,” said Eric Cardinal, UPN’s senior VP for research. He said UPN’s 9.4 overall rating among black households puts it first among networks with that demographic, almost 2 full points ahead of ABC’s second-place 7.5 rating. UPN’s Monday and Tuesday night lineups boast seven of the top 10 shows for black households, season-to-date, along with football, ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” and Fox’s “Bernie Mac.”
“Mondays and now Tuesdays are very much appointment viewing for us with African Americans,” said Dawn Ostroff, UPN’s president, entertainment. “But we consider our target audience to be all women 18 to 34, and our marketing has that in mind. All our shows have multiethnic casting and are very universal in stories and themes. As it happens, one-third of that 18- to 34-year-old audience are minority, so if you market to them you will get a larger African American audience.”
UPN’s series, which have made stars out of such performers as Mo’Nique of “The Parkers,” also have a higher percentage of African Americans in key creative posts behind the scenes. Nine of its 13 series that have aired this season have minority showrunners.
In the world of syndicated television, many programs heavily watched by African Americans are in daytime and prime access. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” is known for attracting a crossover audience, and it remains a top draw for African Americans as well. So do several court shows, including those with black hosts, such as Judge Joe Brown and Judge Greg Mathis. Unlike in prime time, where there is a divide between what black audiences and others watch, in syndication, there is a narrower gap. Everyone, it seems, likes “Wheel of Fortune.”
African Americans who watch public TV have favored specials and episodes of existing prime-time series with black history themes, though not exclusively. The top show on PBS among black households last season, with a 4.6 rating in black households, was the “POV” episode “Two Towns of Jasper,” which dealt with the horrific dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr., by three white men in Texas.
But another highly rated PBS show in black households was an episode of “Reptiles,” with a 4.0.
African American households watch, on average, 13 percent more prime-time TV than does any other demographic, according to Nielsen figures. Broadcast networks do not have a policy of targeting only one audience, but cable networks have emerged that aim for African American households.
BET was the first to do so. The network began operation in 1980 and grew to encompass an array of digital networks: BET Jazz, BET Gospel and BET Hip-Hop. It’s now a subsidiary of Viacom, which also owns CBS and UPN, and programs many popular shows featuring music and music videos. Its “106 & Park: Prime” debuted in January 2003 with 1.1 million total viewers.
BET recently broke its own ratings record for a premiere with “College Hill,” a reality series following the lives of eight black college students at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. The initial episode attracted 1.4 million total viewers, good for a 1.4 rating.
“Finally, a reality show where the only African American isn’t the Angry Black Man,” said Stephen Hill, BET’s senior VP for music, entertainment programming and talent. “That is what our audience is telling us.”
Positioning itself as a premium movie channel for the black audience is Black Starz!, which is part of the Starz! Encore package and has been in operation since 1997. While its programs feature mostly films with African American stars-“Undercover Brother” and “John Q” have been hits for the network-it also has run some originals, mostly documentaries. “Sisters in Cinema,” about black female directors, premieres this month, and “Last of the Mississippi Jukes,” which focused on the history of the backwater jazz and blues clubs, was a success last year.
“Our audience wants the Hollywood hits,” said Stephen Shelanski, senior VP, program acquisitions, planning and scheduling, for Starz Encore Entertainment Group. “But they’ve also asked for our annual `Pan-African Cinema,’ which is the only American program to feature films from Africa, many of which have no theatrical release here.”
Also requested is the “Focus on Black Filmmakers” series, which offers films by undiscovered blacks as well as the early films of black directors who have since established themselves. “The Firing Squad,” directed by Tim Story, who went on to make the successful 2002 MGM release “Barbershop,” is an example.
TV One, a partnership of Comcast and Radio One, launched last month as a basic or extended basic, advertiser-supported network targeting black adults 25 and older, a demographic it feels is underserved. The channel features such off-network series as “Good Times,” “City of Angels” and “Under One Roof.” TV One also offers originals such as “B. Smith With Style,” which looks at lifestyle trends and has included celebrity guests. Radio One has provided a series hosted by radio DJ Tom Joyner.
Actor-producer-director Tim Reid is a senior executive supervising producer and program supplier to the channel.
“You can say we want to be a Lifetime Channel for African Americans,” said Johnathan Rodgers, TV One president and CEO, who in the past has headed the CBS Station Group and the Discovery Networks.
“Blacks watch more television than any other group,” Mr. Rodgers said. “The audience is broader than just one that wants sitcoms or hip-hop culture. That audience wants to be reached, and we can do it.”