Black Cable Viewers Cast Eyes Beyond BET

It probably comes as no surprise that Black Entertainment Television was the No.1 rated network in primetime among African-American viewers in 2005. But what may open a few eyes is that African-Americans are also sampling more broad-based networks like Turner Network Television, Disney Channel and even Lifetime Network at nearly the same levels.

Network executives say efforts to provide more diverse images both from their original and acquired programming are beginning to pay dividends as African-American viewers tune into general entertainment networks, as well as BET, to see images of themselves.

Despite the industry’s emphasis on reaching Hispanic viewers, network executives say they’re not turning their backs on the African-American audience. With African-American viewers representing 23% of all cable subscribers — despite only making up 12% of all cable homes — network executives are conscious of providing fare that will appeal to the group.

“Research tells us, and I think we all know in our guts, that when there are characters on the air that you can relate to, whether in personality, ethnicity or sexuality, you’re going to tune in,” said USA Network president Bonnie Hammer.

Certainly no nationally rated network features more African-American images on cable than BET. As a result, it was the highest-rated network among African-Americans, with a 3.8 household rating and delivering an average of 396,000 households.


The network, one of three African-American targeted cable services — the other two, Black Family Channel and TV One, aren’t nationally rated — also posted the most-watched cable show among the group with its June BET Awards Show — one of four BET specials that finished among the top 10 shows of the year. The music-themed awards show extravaganza garnered a 31.7 household rating in black households.

“[Last year] was our most-watched year ever for ratings, viewers and households,” said BET chairman Debra Lee. “We further solidified BET as the No. 1 cable network in primetime for African-Americans and the No. 1 cable network overall for our target demographic of African-Americans ages 18-34.”

While BET posted a 9% increase in its African-American household rating, other networks were also increasing black viewers while nipping at its the heels. TNT, on the strength of its package of National Basketball Association regular season and playoff telecasts, finished second with a 3.7 household rating (386,000 households).

“Because drama is so universal, drama lovers come from a wide variety of racial, ethnic or social backgrounds, and they look to TNT as a key viewing destination,” said TNT senior vice president of programming Ken Schwab.

The tween-targeted Disney Channel rode the popularity of its multicultural comedy That’s So Raven and its animated comedy The Proud Family to third place with a 3.6 rating, while distaff network Lifetime (369,000) and kids-targeted network Nickelodeon (368,000) finished tied for fourth with a 3.5 rating among African-American households. USA Network (325,000) and Nick At Nite (319,000) next with a 3.1 rating.

Each of the top five networks posted increases with the exception of Nickelodeon, which was flat. Networks such as USA Network (24%), Lifetime (17%) and Nick At Nite (11%) turned in very strong performances on the strength of original and acquired fare targeting African-Americans.

For USA’s part, its bold move to place Ving Rhames in the lead of its remake of Kojak, reprising the role made famous by Greek actor Telly Savalas, helped the network endear itself to African-American viewers, according to Hammer.

While the show was not renewed for a second season due to overall lackluster ratings, the show — along with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which stars rapper Ice-T and the multicultural cast of its original series The 4400 — has generated much greater interest in the network among African-Americans, said Hammer.

The network hopes to continue to keep the audience watching when it bows a new scripted drama Psyche, featuring Dule Hill (The West Wing).

“We’re truly color blind in terms of how we cast [originals],” Hammer said. “We aggressively and actively look for diversity, whether it’s black, Asian and female leads for all of our shows.”

Nick at Nite and sister network TV Land’s adherence to acquiring vintage African-American-targeted sitcoms like Good Times, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and What’s Happening! have helped push both networks’ African-American viewership.

TV Land — in which African-American viewers comprise nearly a quarter of its total viewing base — increased its African-American household ratings 100% over 2004 to a 1.8.

Good Times and What’s Happening! both have a great appeal within the African-American community because they have black casts, but because they were such huge hits back in their day, it raises the boat overall for the entire network,” according to Nick at Nite and TV Land president Larry Jones.

He added that Nick at Nite has yet to make a decision whether to renew the Bill Cosby-penned original animated series Fatherhood, now in its sophomore season.


Although many networks had success reaching African-American viewers last year, executives say they’re not going to rest on their laurels.

FX, which averaged a flat 1.1 rating, has already jumped out of the box strong within the category on the strength of its popular series The Shield. The casting of Forrest Whitaker in a lead role in the gritty cop series has helped the network boost its African-American viewership numbers by 31% in January, according to network executives.

With a new reality miniseries slated for March dubbed Black. White., in which a white family and a black family switch skins through some creative makeup work to gain a unique perspective on life, and a new original series Thief, starring Andre Braugher, network senior vice president of planning and research Steve LeBlang said the FX is aggressively looking to reach African-American viewers.

Not to be outdone, BET will look to hold onto its preeminent position in 2006 with a number of original reality series. Lee said shows such as Season Of the Tiger, which focuses a spotlight on the lives of members of the Grambling University football and marching band squads, and Meet The Faith, a Sunday morning talk show in which prominent African-American politicians and clergymen discuss the issues of the day, will keep viewers tuned into BET.

“Our goal is to make BET the repository of all black culture [and] the premiere destination for consumers of African-American content,” BET president of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin said. “It’s our destiny.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.