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Multicultural Immersion

Networks and content providers looking to reach multicultural viewers are turning to the drama category to lure audiences with shows featuring heavily multi-ethnic casts.

BET’s Being Mary Jane and OWN’s The Haves and the Have Nots are drawing big ratings, while new offerings like Hulu’s East Los High and Starz’ upcoming drama Power are showcasing multi-ethnic casts they hope will appeal not only to minority viewers but also to mainstream audiences.

“What will make great television is to put programming on the screen that is reflective of where people are and where we are as a society today,” Erik Logan, co-president of OWN, said.

Drama series — particularly serials — are among the most popular genres on television. While shows like ABC’s Scandal, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and Lifetime’s Devious Maids feature multicultural characters in leading roles, few dramas on cable or broadcast feature predominately multicultural casts, even though African-American and Hispanic viewers consume more television than white viewers.

Much of that has to do with the various cable and broadcast outlets not fully recognizing the appeal of telling dramatic stories through the eyes and experiences of people from all backgrounds and ethnicities, said Courtney Kemp Agboh, creator of Starz’s Power. The series, which debuts June 7 and features a multi-ethnic cast, follows the life of James “Ghost” St. Patrick, a wealthy New York nightclub owner who leads a double life as the kingpin of the most lucrative drug network in the city.

“One of the great things that Grey’s Anatomy and shows like that did is to show people that there’s actually a market here,” Agboh, who also serves as executive producer of The Good Wife, said. “Everyone wants to see themselves on TV, and they also want to see worlds that look like the world that they’re in.”

OWN’s Logan attributes the success of The Haves and the Have Nots to its diverse cast reflecting presentday society, as well as to series producer Tyler Perry’s strong storylines. The Haves and the Have Nots showcases a struggling but proud African-American family and its members’ often-rocky relationship with two rich and powerful white families. The sophomore series has become the most-watched scripted series in OWN history, averaging nearly 3 million viewers.

“From a society point of view and from a cultural point of view, The Haves certainly offers that reflection,” Logan said. “So many people can relate to either themselves or they know somebody that they can relate to through one of them.”

BET’s Being Mary Jane and Hulu’s East Los High take the trend a step further by offering predominately African- American and Hispanic casts, respectively.

Being Mary Jane, about a TV journalist (Gabrielle Union) and her struggles to balance professional, personal and family obligations, averaged 3.7 million viewers in its freshman season. The network last month renewed it for a second season.

BET CEO Debra Lee said the show is a perfect fit for the network’s target audience of African-American female viewers, who want strong, story-driven shows that reflect their experiences.

“Our first one-hour drama exceeded all of our expectations and really turned into a must-see series on a weekly basis for our audience,” Lee said.

Hulu’s East Los High, one of the few TV shows to feature an all-Latino cast, was originally an acquisition for the OTT service. But the success of the show, about Latino high-school students in L.A., prompted Hulu to pick up production of the second season as part of its original series lineup, Rodrigo Mazon, content acquisition director for Hulu, said.

“It was incredibly successful for us when we premiered it last summer,” Mazon said. “It had a great vibe around it as an authentic show. It had an all-Latino cast, but its appeal was much broader than the Hispanic audience. The fact that it was telling a popular, mainstream, high school story that could happen [in] any other place made it very appealing.”

The show also helped build audience for Hulu’s Latino offering, which aggregates all of the OTT service’s Hispanic-targeted programming. “When we launched this show, we saw a tremendous influx of new Hispanic viewers,” Mazon said. “Not only did the show do well, but all of the Latino content saw a great lift.”