More Platforms, More Content for African-American Viewers

With the NAACP set to open its 51st annual Image Awards on Feb. 22, celebrating the achievements of people of color in the media, it’s not BET, TV One or OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network with the most nominations among networks.

It is Netflix, with 30.

Netflix, along with BET+, Bounce’s Brown Sugar and Urban Movie Channel, are leading the charge among streaming services to challenge African American-targeted cable networks for the hearts, eyeballs and dollars of viewers who are voracious for content that reflects their images and stories. In response, cable networks such as TV One, BET and OWN have doubled down on original fare in an effort to remain viable.

The result has been an unprecedented amount of quality content targeted to African-American viewers. “The streaming competition that the black networks are facing has provided additional pressure for those networks to up their content game,” Cheryl Grace, Nielsen’s senior VP of U.S. strategic community alliances and consumer engagement, said. “I think they have done that. They know that they have to compete with binge-watching on platforms that are increasingly serving up content in really large doses.”

Originals like Hulu's 'High Fidelity' (top l.) look to boost streaming services' appeal to viewers of color. 

Originals like Hulu's 'High Fidelity' (top l.) look to boost streaming services' appeal to viewers of color. 

Streaming platforms have indeed become more competitive in appealing to an African-American viewer who watches more than 50 hours of live and time-shifted television a week — more than 10 hours above the total population, according to Nielsen’s 2019 Diverse Intelligence Series (DIS) report. Netflix has generated headlines by securing top African-American producers such as Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes to develop original content.

Nearly 40% of African-American viewers subscribe to Netflix, according to Nielsen, followed by Hulu at 15% and Amazon Prime Video at 14%. Further, Horowitz Research survey Focus TV & Video Content reported that 60% of African-American viewers feel that original content offered by brands like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are more reflective of America’s diversity than shows on broadcast and cable networks.

DuVernay said Netflix over-indexes with African- American viewers, which contributes to her work’s strong performance on the platform. When They See Us drew more than 23 million viewers within its first month of release last May. “I’ve enjoyed a great amount of freedom there, so they are doing fine by me,” she said.

Other African-American-targeted streaming services are seeing increased audience numbers. Urban Movie Channel (UMC), which offers classic and original African-American targeted movies and series, has seen subscriptions for its $4.99 monthly service increase by 400% over the past 18 months, according to Brett Dismuke, UMC chief content officer. The service, the brainchild of BET founder Bob Johnson and his RLJ Entertainment, which was purchased by AMC Networks in November 2018, has benefited from AMC’s marketing and promotional muscle.

Along with original drama series like Craig Ross Jr.’s Monogamy and Stuck With You, the service offers popular shows from sister cable services WE tv and AMC such as Marriage Boot Camp: Hip Hop Edition and Growing Up Hip Hop.

Better Black Streaming

“Our mission is to stream black better,” Dismuke said. “When looking at our direct competitors, we have the most offerings of exclusive, original content. Our growth is attributable to the content that we’re providing.”

Nielsen’s Grace said the growing appeal in African-American content on streaming services has caused the industry to realize black viewers are not monolithic in their viewing choices.

The increase in streaming viewing hasn’t come at the expense of African-American targeted cable networks, she added. “If anything, we may see a spike in African-American viewership because viewers have to keep up with all of the new content.”

Indeed, OWN said its viewership grew last year as its original content continued to resonate with viewers despite the competition. The network’s relationship-themed unscripted content — OWN recently renewed Black Love, Love & Marriage: Huntsville, Black Women OWN the Conversation and Ready to Love — as well as veteran original scripted series like Queen Sugar and Greenleaf, have made OWN the most-watched cable network by African-American women.

“We are aware of the competitive marketplace, so our strategy has been more, more and more content for our viewers,” OWN president Tina Perry said. “Despite the attempts by over-the-top services to put more African-American content out there and attract that viewer, we’re still finding success.”

BET is positioned to serve African-American viewers on linear TV and streaming platforms. BET+, which launched in September, is a complement to the 41-year old BET basic cable network, which has parlayed its 2019 production deal with Tyler Perry into two scripted series, The Oval and Sistas.

BET's 'Sistahs'

BET's 'Sistahs'

BET+ general manager Devin Griffin said the programmer’s two offerings provide viewers with the best of both worlds. “For cord-cutters and cord-nevers, we are seeing the vision and plan that we laid out of BET+ being consumed as a complement to BET across a number of different vectors,” Griffin said, although he would not disclose BET+ subscriber numbers. “We really look at the various platforms where people can engage with the BET brand as being an interlocking ecosystem. BET+ is intended to help us expand the tent on what we’re able to offer in combination with linear.”

Long-running service to the African-American audience gives established linear channels the inside track as they launch streaming platforms, TV One senior vice president of programming Brigitte McCray said. She said the network’s lineup of unscripted series, including music documentary show Unsung and true-crime series Fatal Attraction, as well as its 2020 schedule of 10 original movies, will help TV One stay in the forefront of African-American viewing choices.

“There’s no doubt that our competitors at Netflix and Amazon have realized how important and rich the African-American audience is,” McCray said. “Without a doubt, it’s our space, and nobody knows and serves that audience better than us. TV One is unapologetically in the black people business, and we represent authentic voices and black storytelling through the lens of black culture.”

Crossover Content

As more shows featuring African-American leads and storylines roll out on all platforms, industry executives said such shows are also appealing to a mainstream audience. “Shows like Greenleaf, David Makes Man and even Empire have black viewers as their core constituency, but other viewers are tuning in as well because they like the storylines and the storytelling,” said Eric Deggans, National Public Radio television critic and author of Race- Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.

Shows such as Fox’s Empire, which finished 2018 in the top 20 among both African-Americans and total viewers 18-plus, and Starz’s Power, the most-viewed premium cable show among African-Americans and second only to Game of Thrones among all viewers, prove shows with predominantly African-American casts can draw a broad audience.

“The color of this revolution in African-American television is not black, it’s green,” Power creator and executive producer Courtney Kemp said. “This content is making people money right now.”

And there’s no end in sight. With new projects coming down the line from Kemp (Power Book II: Ghost); Lena Waithe (BET’s Twenties); DuVernay (OWN’s Cherish the Day); Perry (BET’s House of Payne revival Assisted Living); Zöe Kravitz (Hulu’s High Fidelity); and Jordan Peele (Amazon’s The Hunters and HBO’s Lovecraft County), African-American audiences will have plenty more content to DVR and binge-watch for the foreseeable future.

“If you see a bunch of people running to target an audience, there must be a sense that there is enough audience there for people to grab,” Deggans said. “If there wasn’t an audience to be served, you wouldn’t see these big programmers developing so many shows targeted to black audiences.”

DuVernay said it’s a great time for an African- American producer. “There’s no longer the stigma of moving from movie to TV to music video to short-form,” she said. “We as storytellers can now do it all.”

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.