It’s All About the Drama

Related: What to Watch: Black History Month

A successful single woman is at a crossroads in her life. She wants to have a family, but she’s in love with a man who is involved with another woman. In her desire for a child, she goes as far as to steal her lover’s sperm.

When he finds about the theft, out he lashes out at her. As he leaves the house for the last time, he turns to her and says, “If you wanted a child, all you had to do was ask.”

The scene could originate from any primetime or daytime drama on a mainstream cable or broadcast network created to lure female viewers. Instead, the script is from BET’s sophomore primetime drama, Being Mary Jane, one of nearly two dozen scripted and reality series created specifically to reach an advertiser-desirable African-American female viewer. It’s an audience segment that watches more television than any other demographic and that mostly controls the purse strings for an African-American consumer base estimated to have buying power of more than $1.1 trillion this year.

African-American-targeted networks BET, TV One, Aspire and Centric (which this past November rebranded to target women) join mainstream services such as OWN, VH1, Lifetime, Oxygen, WE tv and Bravo in creating content for African-American women, whom executives say will surf the cable dial to find content reflecting their image and sensibilities.

Lots to Watch

 “The African-American woman watches so much television that there’s room to watch on targeted networks as well as culturally relevant programming on non-targeted networks,” said Cynthia Perkins-Roberts, VP for multicultural marketing for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

African-Americans in general watch 37% more television than any other group — more than seven hours per day. African-American women watch nearly eight hours of television per day, easily topping all demographic groups, according to Nielsen.

“African-American women watch a lot of television, and I think that it’s a proven audience and one that we have always embraced,” said D’Angela Proctor, senior VP of programming and production for TV One.

While TV One has consistently focused on targeting African-American female viewers since its launch 10 years ago with shows such as music documentary series Unsung and, more recently, reality fare like R&B Divas, Proctor said other more mainstream networks are beginning to see the value of that audience and have begun to create content to reach that viewer.

Shows mainly featuring African-American women in lead roles are attracting not only African-American female viewers, but viewers across all demographics in big numbers. Bravo’s RealHousewives of Atlanta this past November set a network ratings record, drawing 4 million viewers for its seventh-season premiere on Nov. 9.

OWN’s Tyler Perry-produced scripted series The Haves and the Have Nots last month set a network record for a season premiere, drawing 3.2 million viewers for its Jan. 6 season 3 debut.

Lifetime’s Whitney, an original movie about the late Whitney Houston, drew 4.5 million viewers on Jan. 17, making it 2015’s most-watched movie to date.

High-Volume Viewers

African-American women actively seek out shows that appeal to them, Perkins-Roberts said. Viewers in the demographic frequently watch an average of 20 channels — almost twice as many frequently watched channels as viewed by women in other demographic groups, the CAB said.

Young African-American women in particular watch more cable programming than their counterparts. For the 2014-15 television season, African-American female viewers 18-49 generated an astounding 24% rating in primetime among ad supported cable networks, compared to 16% for white women 18-49, the CAB said.

For the six major broadcast networks, the African-American female demo only garners a 9% rating, about the same rating as white women.

So it’s no surprise that Oxygen, WE tv, OWN, Bravo, VH1 and Lifetime, among others, are all developing content specifically for black females.

Black female viewers comprise about 20% of Lifetime’s audience base, Rob Sharenow, executive VP and general manager, said. Lifetime has garnered critical acclaim and Emmy nominations for several of its diverse original movies, including the 2013 effort Betty & Coretta and last year’s A Trip to Bountiful.

“There is a lot of interest in that audience because they are an ad-sales target and there are all kinds of brands looking to get those women, and we have them,” Sharenow said. “I want our channel to reflect the diversity of our country, and I think you can really win when you can bring the widest audience appealing to a lot of different people and different backgrounds.”

WE tv’s Thursday-night block, which includes Braxton Family Values, Tamar & Vince, Mary, Mary and SWV Reunited, garners a 70% African-American female audience. “We saw a great response and built programming to leverage off of that success,” network president Marc Juris said. “I think every cable company is looking for an audience and we’ve found a very loyal audience that we’ve built on.”

The key is providing quality fare that offers strong, positive-values-based characters that African-American female viewers can identify with, Juris said.

While many mainstream networks have made inroads toward reaching African-American women, networks with a full-time focus on the demographic still reach the majority of viewers.

Networks geared specifically to African-Americans, such as BET, Centric and TV One, produce programming that account for 76% of the top-indexing programs for black adults, according to Nielsen’s 2014 The Black Consumer report.

Superserving the Demo

“For us, it’s our audience, and we’re trying to superserve that with our programming,” Charlie Jordan Brookins, senior VP of original programming for BET, said. “The fact that other networks are seeing the power of that audience is something that we’ve already known.”

BET will continue to add original fare appealing to African-American viewers and black female audiences in particular, such as the upcoming miniseries The Book of Negroes, about a black female slave who befriends the British army during the Revolutionary War in return for her freedom.

TV One’s Proctor, whose network will launch a monthly series of original movies targeted to African-American female viewers, said there’s enough room for several networks to provide quality, relevant original programming to an audience hungry for content that reflects their lives and culture.

Black female viewers “are a prime target of growth for a lot of cable networks, and TV One has always been a network where women can come and see themselves consistently,” she said.

Added Perkins-Roberts: “In today’s world, the conversation is about reaching the total marketplace. Thant means that all networks are going to be forced to be increasingly diverse in extending or diversifying their programming genres, since most of the growth in all product segments is coming from multicultural markets.” 

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.