MBPT Spotlight: ABC Primetime Offers A Clue To African-American Viewing Patterns

Last season on Thursday night, ABC averaged a cumulative 20.8 million viewers and a 2.2 18-49 demo rating for its three hour-long dramas, according to Nielsen data. This season, the network is averaging a cumulative 29.5 million viewers and a 3.0 demo rating.

On Wednesday night at 9:30 last season, ABC averaged a cumulative 4.6 million viewers and a 1.6 demo rating for two series that aired in the time period. This season-to-date, the network is averaging 8.2 million viewers and a 2.7 demo rating in the time period.

The difference—freshman drama How To Get Away with Murder on Thursday night with black lead actress Viola Davis and freshman comedy Black-ish with an ensemble African-American cast led by Anthony Anderson on Wednesday night. Those two series this season are the second- and third-most-watched in broadcast primetime shows among African-American viewers, behind No. 1 Scandal, the veteran drama starring Kerry Washington.

Media agency Carat put together an African-American viewer index for broadcast network programming based on adult 18-49 demo ratings and the results are a bit of an eye-opener. Not surprisingly, the most-watched shows by African-American viewers are those which have either black male or female lead characters or those with ensemble casts that have African-Americans in major roles. The surprise, however, comes with the series at the absolute bottom of the African-American index—the most-watched comedy and second-most-watched series on broadcast television, The Big Bang Theory on CBS.

Rounding out the least-watched broadcast primetime series among African-Americans in the advertiser-desired demo, from the bottom up this season, are: CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men; NBC drama Parenthood; CBS comedy The McCarthys; CBS reality series Survivor; ABC sitcom Last Man Standing; CBS comedy Mom; Fox sitcom New Girl; ABC drama Castle; and CBS comedy The Millers.

Other primetime series on the low-watched list among African-Americans include: ABC sitcom The Goldbergs, NBC comedies About a Boy, A to Z and Marry Me, and CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls.

A common thread with most of them is the lack of black characters with significant roles.

Another surprise—ABC’s hit comedy Modern Family, which is averaging more than 10 million viewers this season, along with a 3.5 18-49 demo rating, is also ranked quite low on the African-American index. While Modern Family has Hispanic and gay characters in its story lines, there are no black characters among the cast.

More interesting—Black-ish is leading out of Modern Family and averaging a solid 8.2 million viewers and a 2.7 18-49 demo rating, meaning it is getting a significant number of African-American viewers to tune in who are not watching its Modern Family lead-in.

ABC’s entertainment president Paul Lee said during the network’s upfront announcement of this season’s primetime schedule that a special effort was made to bring programming with more diverse casts to the network. And clearly African-American audiences have responded by tuning into the two new series—How to Get Away with Murder and Black-ish—in sizable numbers.

In Carat’s African-American viewing index, Scandal is ranked first, How to Get Away with Murder is second, Black-ish third. Behind those shows in order, rounding out the Top 10, are NBC drama Law &Order: SVU; ABC drama Resurrection; CW freshman dramedy Jane the Virgin; NBC drama Chicago PD; ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy; CW drama Supernatural; and CW drama The Flash.

Just missing the Top 10 are series that include: The Simpsons on Fox; America’s Next Top Model on The CW; The Originals on The CW; ABC drama Revenge; and Fox dramas Sleepy Hollow and Gotham.

A common thread in just about all of those shows is they have prominent black characters in their casts—Ice-T in Law & Order: SVU; Omar Epps in Resurrection; Laroyce Hawkins in Chicago PD; Gauis Charles, Jerrika Hinton and Kelly McCreary in Grey’s Anatomy; Jesse Martin in The Flash; Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow: and Jada Pinkett Smith in Gotham; to name a few.

Based on live-plus-seven viewing, which also includes VOD and digital viewing among the 18-49 demo, Scandal is averaging a 13.2 rating among African-American viewers compared to an overall 18-49 rating of 4.6 for the show. How to Get Away With Murder is averaging a 12.9 18-49 rating among African-Americans compared to a 5.4 overall 18-49 demo rating. Black-ish is averaging a 7.9 rating in the demo among African-American viewers, compared to a 3.8 demo rating overall.

Diedre Smalls-Landau, executive VP and managing director of IPG Mediabrands’ multicultural unit Identity is hoping that ABC’s success with its two new series “will send a signal to all the networks that there needs to be more programming that is a reflection of the real world we live in. I hope ABC’s move will start the dialogue flowing again about the importance of network programming being more inclusive.”

Billie Gold, VP, director of TV programming research at Carat believes more networks will develop programming with more African-American characters and maybe even with all-black casts because the networks traditionally have copied successes by other networks.

ABC also is not the only broadcast network to introduce series with almost an entirely African-American cast this season. Fox, in January, will begin airing a new drama series, Empire, which stars Terrence Howard as the head of a hip-hop entertainment company who must battle with his ex-wife and three sons to maintain control. Fox announced this week that it will premiere the series on Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. leading out of the 14th season premiere of American Idol.

The consumer spending power of African-Americans is considerable—about $1 trillion annually—so it is not an audience segment most marketers should be ignoring. A recent Nielsen study offered some data, which showed that 44% of all African-American households earn $50,000 and up, and 23% earn more than $75,000.

The Nielsen report also pointed out that 38% of African-Americans are more likely to make a purchase of a brand when the ads have black persons included, and 20% would be more likely to purchase a product that is endorsed by a black celebrity. And 55% of African-Americans age 18-55 with household incomes of $50,000 or more say they would purchase or support a product if it was sold or supported by a person of color or a minority-owned business.

But Smalls-Landau said while she believes the media agencies could be doing a better job of selling the benefits of reaching African-American audiences to their clients, it is sometimes challenging, primarily because of the dearth of primetime broadcast network shows with black casts or even with prominent black characters, and also because even with high concentrations of African-American viewers watching some of the shows, it is not cost-efficient for marketers who only want to reach that audience segment.

Carat’s Gold believes if ABC’s Black-ish can continue to draw close to the audience levels it’s at now, and if Empire can become a successful African-American audience draw on Fox, that this could start the ball rolling for more programming with all-black casts moving forward. That would make it a bit more cost-efficient for marketers who want to target.

On Thursday night last season, ABC’s 8 p.m. time slot, which primarily aired freshman series Once Upon aTime in Wonderland, averaged only 4.6 million viewers and a 1.6 18-49 demo rating. Grey’s Anatomy, airing at 9, averaged 8.5 million viewers and a 2.7 in the demo, while Scandal at 10 averaged 8.5 million and a 2.8. This season, ABC moved Grey’s to 8, where it is averaging 8.8 million viewers and a 2.6. Scandal airs at 9 and has been averaging 10.1 million viewers and a 3.2 in the demo, while How to GetAway With Murder has joined the lineup at 10 and is averaging 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 demo rating.

While some of the existing most-watched broadcast network primetime series such as The Big Bang Theory or NCIS might not need to grow their viewership by adding African-American characters to their casts, some of the other shows at the bottom of the African-American index might benefit from doing so.

One genre Smalls-Landau doesn’t want to see the broadcast networks get into is African-American reality shows. “We don’t need any more of those,” she says, “there are enough of them all over cable.” But she would like to see more dramas that are not necessarily featuring entire African-American casts, but those like the Shonda Rhimes Thursday ABC dramas that have black stars as part of mixed ensembles.

“Shonda is very good at portraying what the world and the workplace really looks like in her dramas,” Small-Landau says, adding her hope that the broadcast networks will find other show creators who can produce similar quality programming that can draw in African-American viewers.