Multicultural Content Goes Multiplatform

A transgender father struggles to come out to his self-absorbed kids who are dealing with their own sexual issues and identities. A hyper-aggressive, African-American lesbian inmate has the hots for a white inmate from the suburbs who mixes with a virtual ethnic rainbow of female prisoners at a federal correctional facility.

The unique and trans-cendent diversity of Jeffrey Tambor’s character of Morton/Maura Pfefferman in Amazon Prime Instant Video’s dramedy series Transparent, and Uzo Aduba’s portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Netflix’s prison series Orange Is the New Black have made the two over-the-top services credible players in depicting diverse characters on television.

Their respective portrayals also earned Tambor the first-ever Golden Globe award for the portrayal of a transgender character and Aduba a rare Emmy Award for an African-American actress.

And in a 2014-15 television season that’s arguably been one of the most prolific ever for multicultural broadcast and cable shows (with such breakout hits as Fox’s Empire, The CW’s Jane the Virgin, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish and Starz’s Power), it might be OTT that provides the ultimate platform for content depicting diversity for both multicultural and mainstream audiences.


Established over-the-top services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have a unique opportunity to target multicultural viewers by offering content directly to an audience that increasingly streams its favorite content to smartphones, tablets and TV sets, executives said. Meanwhile, new multicultural OTT services like Urban Movie Channel, created by BET founder Bob Johnson, are creating targeted online-video services for specific segments of the multicultural audience.

“Over-the-top streaming is a quintessential answer to diversity because it allows consumers to access exactly the kind of content they want to access targeted to their primary viewing interest, whether it’s based on ethnicity, cultural behavior, or social interests or gender issues,” Johnson said. “There is no limitation on access and no limitations posed by gatekeepers if the consumers are willing to access the programming on an advertiser mode or a pay-basis mode.”

There is certainly a viable, growing multicultural audience for online video providers to mine. African-American and Hispanic viewers spent more time watching video content via the Internet or on smartphones on a monthly basis in the fourth quarter of 2014 than they did in the same period in 2013, per Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for the timeframe.

Further, multicultural viewers over-index on subscriptions to cable, SVOD, OTT and other pay TV services when compared with their white counterparts, according to a recent Horowitz Research study on the State of Viewing in the Age of OTT. Nearly 90% of African- Americans subscribe to some form of pay service, compared to 87% of Hispanics and 80% of Asian-Americans. Among whites, 75% have some form of pay TV subscription, according to Horowitz.

“This younger generation that is on these platforms is so diverse, naturally, that they will fi nd shows that are great and appeal to them,” said Rodrigo Mazon, director of content acquisitions for streaming service Hulu. “We do prioritize the audience that has been underserved traditionally, but it’s truly about great stories and shows that have a diverse and authentic composition.”

Indeed, the expanding multicultural online audience has not been lost on the top OTT providers. For one, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has one of television’s most diverse casts, which netted Orange casting director Jennifer Euston a 2014 Emmy for outstanding casting in a drama series.


Orange’s Aduba in her Emmy acceptance speech for best supporting actress in a comedy series last August singled out Netflix “for putting something like this on television so that everyone can be represented in such a beautiful way.”

At the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour this past January, Netflix chief creative officer Ted Sarandos touted the diverse casts of Orange and of drama series Marco Polo as examples of the streaming service’s concerted effort to create more original programming with multicultural appeal. Netflix also signed Men In Black 2 star Rosario Dawson to appear in its upcoming Marvel Comics-based series Daredevil.

“Netflix was born on the Internet, so our demographic was younger and more male when we were beginning, [but] it’s far more mainstream today,” Sarandos told more than 200 reporters at the TCA tour. “So you really are covering all demographics and trying to find programming that people love and attach to in a way that leads to retention and creates a brand halo for Netflix as well. We really are trying to program something for everyone.”

Hulu, which already offers same-day replays of such shows as Empire, Jane the Virgin and Black-ish, also wants to ramp up its multicultural viewer appeal through its original content, Mazon said. Hulu original drama East Los High, with an all-Hispanic cast, is the linchpin of the network’s Latino-themed content, which also includes acquired movies and series from Latin America.

“We’ve been committed to diverse, multicultural millennial audiences and content before that and this just reaffirms that,” Mazon said. East Los High, which chronicles the lives of Latino students in a fictional Los Angeles High School, will launch its third season later this year. The service last fall also launched unscripted series Los Cowboys, which focuses on a multigenerational family steeped in the sport of Mexican rodeo.

For Amazon, diversity isn’t limited to ethnicity. The studio’s dramedy series Transparent has been lauded for Tambor’s breakthrough portrayal of a middle- aged transgendered father; he won a Golden Globe for best actor in a television music or comedy series this past January. The series also won a Globe for best musical or comedy.

But established OTT services are not the only choices for diverse viewers. Other startup services, such as Urban Movie Channel, are looking to get into OTT on the ground floor.

UMC’s Johnson said today’s OTT business looks a lot like cable in the early 1980s, when networks looked to differentiate themselves from the broadly focused broadcasters by targeting niche audiences.

Johnson, who launched BET in the early 1980s as the first TV network specifically for African-Americans, added that producers of quality content aimed at multicultural audiences have a great opportunity for success at this early stage of the industry’s development.

Urban Movie Channel, which launched last November as an SVOD service, offers urban-themed documentaries, comedies, horror films and stage plays targeted to a predominately African- American audience.

UMC recently secured the VOD rights to the much anticipated independent film Blackbird starring Isaiah Washington and Mo’Nique. The movie will have a limited run in theaters before it streams on the UMC SVOD service later this summer.

“The OTT content providers of today are a lot like the content providers of yesterday,” Johnson said. “Their mindset to some extent is to go for scale and large audiences, and tend not to think about targeting micro audiences or unique diverse audiences. We’re going to take advantage of that window and build us a unique brand, much like I built BET into that unique brand.”


Cable network Africa Channel will launch an OTT service in 2016 that will feature African-themed content from the channel as well as exclusive content created on the continent, according to vice president of marketing and digital Brian Newton.

“We look at [OTT] as evening the playing field,” said Newton, whose service has struggled to gain linear MVPD distribution. “Right now, you have all these people at home paying for channels that they don’t watch, and they do not see themselves reflected, so there will come a time when the viewer will have a choice to spend $5 a month to access programming that reflects their sensibilities all the time as opposed to a more expensive package that may do that part of the time.”

Hulu’s Mazon expects to see more multicultural programming in general pop up on both traditional TV networks as well as in the OTT space, all competing for the eyeballs and dollars of multicultural viewers.

“I think because of the young, multicultural demographic that exists today, a lot of content is being developed and created to target that audience,” Mazon said. “Voices are being heard more loudly now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing a lot more multicultural [content] done in an authentic way.”

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.