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Are TV Networks Finally Starting To Realize The Ratings & Profit Potential In Producing Content For Black Women?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 9, 2014 at 11:26AM

Are TV Networks Finally Starting To Realize The Ratings & Profit Potential In Producing Content For Black Women?
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Viola Davis as brilliant criminal defense attorney Annalise DeWitt, in Shonda Rhimes' 'How to Get Away With Murder' - Coming to ABC this fall
Viola Davis as brilliant criminal defense attorney Annalise DeWitt, in Shonda Rhimes' 'How to Get Away With Murder' - Coming to ABC this fall

EDITOR'S NOTE: In light of yesterday's news that ABC and other non-black-specific TV networks had ordered to series a number of new projects created by and/or featuring black leads, I thought this was a worthy repost - an item I first published on this blog in early January, which I think speaks directly to what's currently happening in terms of networks seemingly, and we could say, finally realizing the weight and profitability in serving black audiences specifically, as the 2014/2015 primetime TV lineup shapes up, thus far (given new series that have been ordered), to be one of the, shall we say, *blackest* in a long time; maybe since the early 1990s (See our list of new series coming next season with black leads HERE which we're constantly updating as networks announce orders), including 2 high profile series starring black women (Zoe Saldana and Halle Berry) debuting in the next month or two.

While compiling the below stats, I had the recent study from UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, on my mind; The study, published late last year (2013), which revealed that TV shows with ethnically diverse cast members and writers, attract much larger audiences than shows with less diversity in their cast and crew.

While it shouldn't be a surprise, it might take studies like this (titled "Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television"), as well as continuous emphasis on the direct correlation between cast diversity and audience statistics (and hence each company's bottom line), to convince studio decision makers that there is indeed enough of a reason to build more TV series (and movies), around the lives of diverse groups of characters - like the handful listed below.

The study comes to us despite the fact that, as other studies continue to report each year, women and minorities are still terribly underrepresented in leading roles and staff positions, on both cable and broadcast TV programs.

The overall complexion of the world - specifically the USA - is gradually changing, and it's something that should not be ignored, especially if you're creating content for a mass, mainstream audience. We all want to see ourselves on screen - at least I certainly think so. Quite a bold concept, isn't it?

It was in 1945 that research was first used to aid in defining Blacks as consumers. The study was initiated by the Afro-American Newspaper Group, in collaboration with the Urban League. A summary of the findings confirmed that blacks were a viable market segment (Wow, really? Who knew?), but the racial attitudes of the time prevented most marketers from pursuing the opportunity to fully exploit that very viable population.

Almost 70 years later, with African American buying power specifically, said to be something like $1.5 trillion annually (some of that going into the bank accounts of entertainment companies) , it's incredible that many (in this industry especially) are still very much ignoring the African American market (in all its diversity, which is key). There's still a lot of money to be made from that market, if only more were willing to take what would likely be considered risks.

All that said, the last 12 to 24 months in TV history have certainly seen more of an emphasis by the networks on content targeted at black women audiences in that coveted 25-54 ratings age range, as that audience has delivered, and continues to deliver solid (and in some cases record) ratings for the networks that have shown, and continue to show interest in attracting them. And I think it's only a matter of time, before other networks who are still seemingly ignoring that audience, jump on the bandwagon, especially if ratings (and, in essence, advertising dollars, and thus their bottomline) are of importance to them.

So might a time soon come when TV (broadcast and cable) lineups see every major network's programming schedule include at least one dramatic or comedy series, centered primarily around the lives of black women, or feature black women in meaty and vital starring roles?

The evidence suggests that those who currently don't, might be foolish not to reconsider.

- The current season premiere of Scandal was a big hit for ABC (although the series already was doing well), drawing the largest number of viewers in its history! How many? 10.5 million tuned in, giving the ABC drama series highs in total viewers. It was the #2 TV show of the entire night in Adults 18-49, behind only CBS' The Big Bang Theory. So it did even better than the show that comes on before it - another Shonda Rhimes drama, Grey's Anatomy, which is also doing very well for the network.

To compare its season 1 and 2 premiere episodes:

- Season 1's Scandal premiere drew 7.3 million.

- Season 2's Scandal premiere drew 6.7 million.

Clearly an increase in interest - an increase that's carried through to the rest of the season, as the series is enjoying some of its best ratings in its short history.

Regarding social media activity - where the series, its cast and crew set the standard: The Scandal premiere delivered 712,877 tweets, which is the show's highest social delivery to date and stood as the #1 most social series on Thursday night.

Even the Scandal recap special, which brought audiences up to speed, and ready for season 3, beat programming on other networks, in its 8-9pm time-slot. It drew an impressive 5.7 million viewers! Some regular TV series would love to have those numbers. This was a recap special!

But clearly it's attracted a healthy number of new viewers, which is a very good thing for the series, its stars, writing staff, creator and fans. And while I'd posit that the series' audience comprises heavily of black women, I'm sure there are also quite a few non-black women (and men, black and non-black) who tune in as well.

- The premiere episode of this season of FX's critically-acclaimed miniseries American Horror Story - titled Coven, was the most-watched telecast ever of the American Horror Story franchise, recording 5.54 million total viewers, ranking #1 for the night in Adults 18-34 against all broadcast competition in primetime. I've half-joked about how instrumental the additions of Angela Bassett especially and Gabourey Sidibe to the cast of this season have been to the series' explosive growth in viewership - a growth that has carried throughout the season, as the series' is averaging a very impressive 7.74 million total viewers, per episode (remember this is a cable TV series), outpacing last season's installment by a staggering 83% in total viewers. Like I said, explosive growth. With the season almost over, American Horror Story: Coven is on track to record some of the strongest ratings of any program in FX history. Coven’s first two episodes were the highest-rated single telecasts in delivery of Adults 18-34 in FX’s history. Coven also ranks as the highest-rated miniseries of 2013 in delivery of Adults 18-49 and Adults 18-34.

I can only wonder how much of all of that had to do with awareness of the addition of Angela Bassett (and Gabourey Sidibe) to the cast, and how many new black viewers (who didn't watch the series before this season - like many folks I know) the series drew, if only because of the addition of those 2 actresses.

Sleepy Hollow set records at FOX with its premiere last year, and has already been renewed for a second season. The series increased Fox's ratings in the Monday 9pm slot more than 100% over the previous year. A total of 25 million viewers watched the pilot live, on DVRs, online or on demand. It's the network's biggest fall drama since 24 launched in 2001. Sleepy Hollow collects the most tweets per minute of any current Fox show and is one of the most popular new series on social media. It took only three episodes for Fox to greenlight a second season.

- The series premiere of Being Mary Jane on BET was Monday's top cable original with a 1.5 rating (Adults 18-49), drawing 3.3 million viewers during the 10pm premiere, and around 5 million for the night. Those figures were enough to make it the highest-rated cable TV drama debut of the entire 2013-14 television season thus far, which is impressive. According to Nielsen, Being Mary Jane also did well on social media during its series premiere, with the official hashtag of #beingmaryjane generating 12.48 million impressions.

- Meanwhile, also this week, over on the OWN network (the other black TV network that doesn't call itself a black TV network), the season 2 premiere of the Tyler Perry drama The Haves and the Have Nots delivered record numbers, drawing 2.8 million viewers and becoming the #1 season premiere in OWN history across all key demos. The episode ranked as the highest telecast in series history, posting double-digit growth in Women 25-54 (up +59%) and total viewers (up +57%), versus the season one premiere (May 28, 2013). The episode was also the  #3 telecast in OWN history among total viewers. It's worth adding that, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network closed out 2013 on top, achieving its second consecutive year of double digit growth across key demos. Additionally, OWN ranked as the #5 primetime cable network in 2013 among all African American women. OWN also ranked in the top three cable networks on Tuesday nights (#2), Wednesday nights (#2) and Saturday nights (#3), among African American woman 25-54. OWN's popular Saturday night lineup boasts the night's top six original series for African American W25-54 including Welcome to Sweetie Pie'sIyanla: Fix My LifeHouston BeautySix Little McGheesRaising Whitley and Life with La Toya. Tuesday and Wednesday nights ratings gains were driven by the network's popular scripted series from Tyler PerryThe Haves and the Have NotsLove Thy Neighbor and For Better or Worse. Remember when OWN launched, and what its lineup of programming looked like at the time? Quite different than what it looks like now, isn't it?

- The potential riches in creating series that target black women audiences certainly hasn't been lost on VH1. The network's top 5 shows in terms of total viewers, from December 2012 to October 2013 were: Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, T.I. & Tiny, Marrying The GameHit The Floor, and Basketball WivesIn a late 2013 Bloomberg interview from where I lifted the information, VH1 President Tom Calderone talked specifically about the success of the TLC biopic (remember that?) which his network aired in the fall of last year, and which became the most watched original movie EVER on VH1! Every single one of the top 5 shows above, as well as the original movie, are essentially the network's bread & butter - all programs targeted at black women audiences, which is even more interesting when you consider that VH1 is not a black TV network. Maybe it should officially become one. And while I'm sure each of these series and movies have/had some cross-over reach, I'd argue that black people make up/made up the majority of the audience watching them.

Orange is the New Black was a tremendous success for Netflix. How tremendous? It was Netflix's most watched original series ever and, as with each of their other previously launched originals, enjoyed an audience comparable with successful shows on cable and broadcast TV. The series also saw sustained social media buzz in the months after its debut and it was also one of the most critically well received TV shows of 2013. Orange is the New Black was not eligible for the Emmys in 2013, but Season 1 will be eligible next year and Netflix has reasons to believe the audience for Season 2 will grow substantially. I'm sure it will. One of a handful of new original series on the on-demand service, Orange Is the New Black has indeed been the talk of this town, as every item we publish about the series is met with much praise and excitement (and some criticism of course), suggesting that there's a healthy black audience watching the series - maybe more-so than any other Netflix original shows; at least, that's what I speculate based on available evidence. It's really the only Netlfix series with more social media activity, as observed on my Facebook and Twitter feeds (as well as the S&A Facebook and Twitter feeds), than any other this year (as the quote above suggests). Far more than high-profile titles like House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and even Arrested Development and Lilyhammer. And, most significantly, it's the only Netflix original series with a significant black presence amongst its cast members, and the audience draw is likely influenced by the fact that there are several black actresses who make up the series' cast - an audience that we could argue helped it become Netflix's most-watched original series ever, as the CEO and CFO state. I even took a survey on the S&A Facebook page a month or so ago, asking how many (who didn't already have Netflix accounts prior to Orange Is The New Black's debut), signed up just to watch the series. And several folks revealed that they did just that! Obviously, this is all very "unscientific" because I don't have exact figures to quote, and I welcome push-back on my speculation. Unfortunately, Netflix still does not release exact ratings/audience draw numbers, opting to instead measure those metrics over a longer period of time, given the platform, instead of on a weekly basis as traditional TV does. 

- The Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Kerry Washington delivered the show's highest rating of the season at the time (last fall). Prior to that, the highest rated episode was on March 9 with host and musical guest Justin Timberlake. And while we're on SNL, after much uproar from the black community, likely with black women leading the charge, comedian, actress, writer Sasheer Zamata was cast by Saturday Night Live brass, joining the late night show's troupe, as its first black woman cast member since 2007. The news came earlier this week, after last month's news that NBC held Saturday Night Live auditions, looking specifically for black women. This of course came after an onslaught of criticism the show and its producer faced, over its lack of black female representation within its cast. This is an issue that S&A has addressed ad naseam, and not just this year. The conversation continued after Kerry Washington hosted the show (her first time) to season high ratings last fall. Zamata will make her debut as a featured player on SNL on January 18, which will be the first live show in the new year. In addition, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones (who were amongst the many women who auditioned for the job that eventually went to Sasheer Zamata), were later hired to join SNL's writing staff. 

- And most recently, NBC announced just yesterday that Zoe Saldana has been cast in the network's four-hour miniseries adaptation of Ira Levin's 1967 best-selling suspense novel Rosemary’s Baby - a novel that was also the basis for Roman Polanski's 1968 film of the same name, which starred Mia Farrow as the title character. Saldana will of course play Rosemary, the young wife and would-be mother who, with her husband, moves into a Paris apartment that has a darkly storied past. After finally getting pregnant, she becomes increasingly suspicious that both her husband and their mysterious neighbors have ulterior motives about the future of her child. I'm not certain it's clear to everyone just how big this is. At least, I think it is, given the long-standing critical and cult status of Polanski's film adaptation, to start.

Lifetime announced this week that the network will premiere two all-new original movies next month: first, The Gabby Douglas Story, starring Regina KingS. Epatha Merkerson, Imani HakimSydney Mikayla and Gabby Douglas herself; and second, the film adaptation of the recent all-black Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful, starring Cicely TysonVanessa WilliamsBlair Underwood and Keke Palmer. This is over a year after the network's all-black cast remake of Steel Magnolias and another all-black cast original movie, Abducted: The Carlina White Story, which starred Aunjanue Ellis, Keke Palmer, and Sherri Shepherd.

What did I miss? 

Of course, there've been attempts at series centered around black women characters that ultimately failed - most recently, Meagan Good in Deception on NBC. But that hasn't stopped the network from continuing to try.

And do you remember the tremendous uproar that followed the killing off of Taraji P. Henson's character on Person Of Interest on CBS, with many of her fans saying she was primarily the reason they watched, and would stop watching now that she's no longer on the show? I don't believe CBS has since seen a significant drop in viewership. But the reaction to her exit was shocking and a source of angst and indecision for many apparently.

Surprise America! Black people like to see themselves on TV (and film) too! And, you know what, our tastes are varied, since we are a varied people. We don't all like the same things, as you can see in the variety of the 10 or so programs mentioned within this post. And that's just fine too! 

And that's the beauty in all this - how diverse the collective shows are. There's almost something to suit every woman's taste. Not entirely, of course. The sum total of the black female experience certainly isn't being represented here, despite the surge in interest by networks in creating content aimed at attracting black women audiences. There's still a long way to go. But baby steps, I suppose. It's likely only a matter of time before Issa Rae is a presence on your TV screens, to start.

And as I asked earlier, might a time soon come when TV (broadcast and cable) lineups see every major network's programming schedule include at least one dramatic or comedy series, centered primarily around the lives of black women, or feature black women in meaty and vital starring roles? The evidence suggests that those who currently don't, might be foolish not to reconsider.

But here's an even more salient question folks - when will the brothas - aka black men - also have their day to bask in this kind of attention?

Maybe recent announcements suggest that time might soon be coming. 

For example, with his In Living Color reboot shelved for good it appears, Keenen Ivory Wayans is making another attempt to return to TV comedy, selling a pitch to ABC last fall, which reportedly saw competitive bidding among networks on the project, with ABC ending up with it.

Keenen will write and exec produce.

Also, Kevin Hart recently sold an untitled divorce comedy based on his stand-up routine to ABC as well. And there's also Black-ish (a recent script commitment by ABC once again) starring Anthony Anderson, written by Kenya Barris (The Game), and produced by Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy production company; and I should throw in the recently greenlit A Slave In The White House miniseries with LUV director Sheldon Candis adapting.

Is ABC becoming friendlier to so-called 'black-themed' content from black content creators?

Then there's Steve McQueen's project set up at HBO, with World War Z co-writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, as well as Russell Simmons, and the Oscar-winning producers of The King’s Speech, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman. Details are currently sparse on the drama project, but it's being described as "an exploration of a young African American man’s experience entering New York high society, with a past that may not be what it seems."

Also set up at HBO, is director John Singleton's Club Life: Miami - a drama that's said to be set against the South Beach club scene and follows a reformed criminal who moves to Miami and gains a new lease on life as he embraces the vibrant, youthful and transgressive world. 

Singleton will write, and will executive produce the project along with Simmons.

There's a similar project set up at the Starz network, titled Power, produced by 50 Cent, also set against the club scene, but in New York City, with similar illicit dealings. Omari Hardwick is set to star in that drama series that seems promising, if only because of its cast.

And there are a few others that have been announced in the last year; although whether all of them will eventually make it to TV, remains to be seen. These are uncertain waters. You might recall a previous planned drama series centered around a black male character that Spike Lee directed the pilot for, but which HBO passed on - Da Brick, starring John Boyega.

Finally, one of a handful of new Walter Mosley novel adaptations we've been following in recent years is finally heading to the screen - the small screen. Laurence Fishburne will revive Socrates Fortlow for HBO, as a TV series centered around the Mosley character, featured in the 1998 feature film adaption of his novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, which also aired on HBO.

I should mention that other Mosley screen adaptations announced in recent years that haven't materialized (and may never) include: a TV series based on private investigator Ezekiel Easy” Rawlins, which was in the works for the NBC network, and which NBC killed last year after seeing a script; his Leonid McGill series - the New York City private investigator - starting with the first book in the series titled, The Long Fall, was to be adapted by HBO, but nothing's happened there. Mosley said in early last year that he'd pretty much outlined the entire first season for HBO, which would be based on The Long Fall, and that he was to meet with HBO execs a couple of months after that, during which I assumed he'd be handing over what he'd done, and they'd further discuss the project; there's also Samuel L Jackson's optioning of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey to adapt for the big screen; There was the TNT network's ordering of a pilot for Mosley's Fearless Jones series of novels, with plans for an eventual TV series; also, most recently, plans were announced to develop of a feature film based on Mosley’s psychological thriller Man In My Basement, with Anthony Mackie in talks to star, and Mosley co-writing the screenplay with Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland).

Nothing new to report on any of those projects, unfortunately!

Wanting to take matters into his own hands, last year, Mosley teamed up with TV series and documentary producer Diane Houslin to launch a new production company, B.O.B. Filmhouse (Best of Brooklyn Filmhouse), with the goal being to play an "active role" in the adaptation of his novels into films and TV series). 

And, how could I forget - there is House Of Lies, starring Don Cheadle on Showtime.

Baby steps...

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm..., TV Features


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