As the nation becomes increasingly divided, a small piece of encouraging news comes from, of all places, Nielsen: A new study shows that several programs predominantly African-American casts also boast a large percentage of white viewers.
The new roster of diverse series that have found cross-cultural appeal include ABC’s “Black-ish” and HBO’s “Insecure.” Around 79% of the”Black-ish” audience is non-black, while the “Insecure” audience is 61% non-black.
“Black-ish” is a huge hit for ABC: It stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as parents of a growing family who struggle to create a sense of black identity for their kids while living in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood. “Insecure,” created by Issa Rae and inspired by her web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” is about a young African-American woman in Los Angeles, her friendships, and how it’s sometimes hard to make the right decisions.
Both shows highlight the black experience in America, but also tell relatable stories about something everyone can relate to: Trying to fit in.
“When we first saw that so much of our audience was non-black, we were like, ‘Wow, that’s so fascinating,'” said “Insecure” executive producer Prentice Penny. “And then you get mad that that should be fascinating, you know, because we’re just telling stories about humans.”
A return to shows with African-American casts attracting broad audiences is a big deal. Forty years ago, networks broke the color barrier with series like “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” and then “The Cosby Show” became the biggest TV series of the ’80s.
That changed with the rise of cable and audience fragmentation. Smaller networks like Fox, The WB, and UPN realized they could grow faster by targeting African-Americans, an audience that overindexes on television consumption.
By the late ’90s, the complexion of primetime had shifted. By 1997, Fox, The WB and UPN aired 16 of the 20 shows featuring African-American casts in primetime — shows like “Martin,” “Living Single,” “Moesha,” “Malcolm and Eddie,” “The Parent ‘Hood” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.”
That segregation eventually caused controversy, as major networks looked a lot less multicultural in comparison. After countless summits and hearings, the broadcasters pledged to try harder, but it took another decade for those promises to come to fruition.
Also, by that point, audience fragmentation got to the point where shows didn’t need to attract a broad viewership in order to be a big success. That gave networks a bit of wiggle room to take more chances, which included more-diverse casting.
The move toward more inclusive programming took a while to take hold, but hits like “Scandal” finally reminded programmers that diverse leads can be good for business. More recently, “Empire” became a pop-culture phenomenon, and while that show has a predominantly black audience (63%), its numbers were so big that it hit the mainstream hard and provided “further evidence,” the Nielsen report says, “of a cultural recalibration in which black voices increasingly are heard.”
“It’s true that there are a lot more shows with people of color — particularly African Americans at the top of the call sheet now — than there probably have been in the last 10 years,” said Andrew McCaskill, Nielsen’s senior VP communications and multicultural marketing. “When we started to look at different demographic information, we found that 73 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 67 percent of Hispanics believed that African Americans influenced mainstream culture. So, we wanted to see how that matched up against all of the ‘black’ shows that we were starting to see on television.”
Anne Marie Fox/HBO
Beyond “Black-ish” and “Insecure,” other shows studied included “This Is Us,” which focused heavily in Season 1 on star Sterling K. Brown’s character, who met his biological father after having been raised by white parents. It has 89% non-black viewership. Creator Dan Fogelman’s other new show this season, Fox’s “Pitch,” focused on an African-American woman who becomes the first female to play Major League Baseball, and averaged 63% non-black audiences.
“How to Get Away with Murder,” staring Oscar winner Viola Davis, has 69% non-black viewership, while 68% of the audience for “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington, is non-black. And half of the viewership for Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta,” about two cousins navigating the Atlanta rap scene, is non-black.
“What we’re also seeing in the numbers is that you can have these ‘black’ shows or shows that have authentic African-American scenarios and that have African Americans at the top of the call sheet, and those shows become incredibly popular amongst general markets, not just African-Americans, but the shows are very successful,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill also credits social media and the growing influence of more ethnically diverse millennial audiences.
“It is perfectly normal for them to watch a show on television and see that show with an all-black cast, and they may not be black, but completely identify with it because so much of their peer group is diverse,” he said. “They’ve gone to school and played sports with other ethnicities. That is just another indication of the huge demographics shift that we’re seeing in the country.”
Penny said he’s cautiously optimistic about the trend, but is also realistic that the pendulum of change can swing back and forth in Hollywood.
“I don’t know where this ends up long-term, because I’ve seen people say, ‘It’s the renaissance,” and then the renaissance goes away. I think our recent election tells you how things can be moving in a certain way, and then you get the complete opposite,” he said. “I certainly like where it’s going. It’s super important to say, ‘Hey, it’s not only black people who watch black shows.’ People watch shows, no matter what, and I think this study helps.”
The Nielsen study isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it points out that the greater appetite for television by African-American audiences has helped drive the increase in diverse TV programming, which in turn has attracted diverse audiences.
“It’s a bit counterintuitive to how most people think about these shows and the content that they’re looking at,” he said. “But they’re a lot of white and Hispanic and Asian families sitting in their living rooms, watching shows like ‘Black-ish’ or ‘Insecure’ – depending upon their age groups. And I think that that’s really interesting to know that the data actually says that our interests are a bit more similar than what the zeitgeist might imply.”