African-American viewership patterns thus far in 2004 indicate that a handful of general-entertainment cable networks — offering original and scripted comedies and dramas prominently featuring African-Americans — have gained on category leader Black Entertainment Television in drawing black viewers overall and in the advertiser-desired 18-to-49 age group.
While media buyers say BET is still the network of choice for advertisers appealing to this group, the changes could lead to a shift in ad spending. That prospect raises hopes among startups or re-energized channels seeking a share of that market, such as TV One and Black Family Channel.
BET — with a formula that includes music videos, comedy, news and acquired shows such as Soul Food (Showtime) and Girlfriends (UPN) — was tied with Turner Network Television in the household ratings race for African-Americans in primetime, as both averaged a 3.5 mark year-to-date (Dec. 29, 2003, through Oct. 3). Disney Channel ranked No. 3 with a 3.4, followed by Lifetime Television and Cartoon Network, each with a 2.9.
TNT — in more homes than BET and aided by its National Basketball Association slate, repeats of Law & Order and theatrical films — actually reached more African-American households in primetime (358,946) than BET (348,457) between Dec. 29, 2003, and Sept. 19, according to a BET analysis of Nielsen Media Research.
Other networks reaching significant numbers of African-Americans during primetime include: Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite with 344,400; Disney Channel with 327,042; and premium service Home Box Office with 300,940.
Services attracting more than 200,000 African-American households in primetime per night are Cartoon Network with 290,619, Lifetime with 284,191, USA Network with 241,318 and ESPN at 202,642.
'NITE' SEES GAINS
Using a yardstick closely watched by advertisers, Nick at Nite led all cable networks in attracting African-American adults 18 to 49 through Sept. 19 on a total programming day basis. That's up 12% year to year, according to the network.
The vintage-sitcom network averaged 154,000 African-American viewers of that age, compared to 145,000 for BET, 139,000 for TNT, 110,000 for USA and 105,000 for Lifetime.
Gauged within Nick at Nite's programming period — Monday to Thursday, 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and Sunday, and Fridays and Saturdays, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — TNT was tops with 167,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 bracket, while Nick at Nite and BET were tied with 154,000 apiece. USA and Lifetime were fourth and fifth, respectively, with 128,000 and 126,000 of that African-American demographic. (BET executives contend their numbers surpass Nick at Nite's when the hours devoted to BET's paid programming are removed.)
Executives say African-American viewers are attracting more attention given the group's increasing influence on cable's bottom line. Though blacks represent only 10% of all cable subscribers, they account for 20% of all subscriber revenue, according to TV One.
African-American households watch 75 hours of television per week — an amount well above any other ethnic group, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Ad-supported cable garnered a 42 share of African-American viewers in 2003, slightly above broadcast's 41 share, according to Nielsen.
Black households' buying power of $687 billion a year adds up to an attractive target for advertisers.
DOLLARS FLOW TO BET
Ad-industry executives say that nearly every dollar spent in cable targeting African-Americans still goes to BET, but some of that spending could shift if other networks continue to provide an alternative means to reach those viewers.
“In broadcast and in cable, advertisers look at who is delivering the African-American audience,” said Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll. “If the general-entertainment networks are overdelivering, then advertisers can't ignore that.”
Ad agency E Morris Communications Inc. vice president and director of media and strategic services Deborah Gray-Young cautioned that ratings and viewership numbers have to be measured in tandem with a network's overall viewership composition when determining how effective it is in reaching the demographic.
While African-Americans make up one quarter or less of the viewership for networks like Nick at Nite, Lifetime and TNT, Gray-Young said BET's audience is 80% African-American.
“If you're getting a high rating among African-Americans but they only make up 10% of your viewers, then you have a huge waste factor to build into the equation,” she said. “I think the better approach [with general-entertainment networks] is a buy on a program-by-program basis, where you know you have high [African-American] viewership.” Gray-Young's agency counts Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. as clients.
Added Black Entertainment Television president and chief operating officer Debra Lee: “Advertisers look at environment, and one of the things that we've preached is that BET has a special connection to the African-American audience. If you advertise on BET, viewers know you're reaching the African-American market — they pay special attention to the ads and there's more of a connection there.”
Nick at Nite's growing appeal to African-Americans is rooted in its acquisition of such off-network sitcoms as The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, as well as the debut this year of the Bill Cosby-produced original animated series Fatherhood — all of which feature predominantly African-American casts.
“Once we launched The Cosby Show, we saw that the network was overindexing with regards to African-Americans,” Nick at Nite president Larry Jones said, adding that black viewers make up 25% of the vintage sitcom net's viewers. “More African-Americans came to the network and with all the shows around it, raised those levels as well.”
BET's Lee said the value of African-American viewers to cable is reflected by through the increased efforts by general-entertainment networks to create and acquire programming appealing to the group.
“It's just evidence that more people are realizing that the African-American audience is a valuable market, and we're seeing that across the board with a lot of general-entertainment channels,” Lee said. “Hopefully it strengthens the leader, so as more people enter the field it just strengthens our relationship with advertisers and our viewers.”
TV One and Black Family Channel, formerly Major Broadcasting Corp., believe they will siphon many of those viewers from general-entertainment networks with more targeted programming.
“African-Americans are very heavy television viewers and they watch broadcast networks in large numbers and premium networks in large numbers,” according to Black Family CEO Rick Newberger. “What they haven't had is access to a network with quality original programming devoted to the black family.
“And as our network gets fully distributed, they will in increasing numbers have that opportunity and that will change the dynamics.”
Distribution is a big factor in the analysis. Black Family Channel — airing original programs, college-sports games, urban news and entertainment — reaches just 13.5 million households, a far cry from the more than 80 million households counted by the general-entertainment networks. Newberger said he hopes to double Black Family's sub base by next year.
TV One president Johnathan Rodgers acknowledged that African-Americans like to see a wide range of programming, one of the reasons the network acquired programming such off-network as series Boston Public, and daytime reality series Starting Over, both with multicultural casts.
Still, he said African-American viewers also want to have a network where they know the can see themselves on a 24-hour basis.
Nick at Nite's popularity “solidifies the fact that African-American viewers will go where they find African-American programming,” Rodgers said. “But with all due credit to Nick at Nite and Lifetime, they're not home bases for African-Americans. We would be a home base for African-Americans, so they wouldn't have to search out for programming.”
Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks said there are no guarantees BET, TV One and Black Family Channel will draw the lion's share of African-American viewers.
“If you look at what African-Americans watch on television, they're watching entertainment programming just like general audiences are — they don't ghettoize themselves,” Brooks said. “African-Americans like to see multiculturalism.
“There will always be a segment of that audience that will go strictly for its own and doesn't want anything to do with the majority. But most African-Americans, as well as Asians, Hispanics, and others, want to be part of the [mainstream].”
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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.