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Multicultural TV Has Plenty of Runway

As television networks and streaming services continue to develop a record number of multicultural-themed scripted shows featuring people of color in front of and behind the camera, programming executives say they aren’t worried that the market for such content will hit a ceiling.

Fox's 'Empire'

Fox's 'Empire'

African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American images are prevalent across television screens: Nearly half of the top scripted broadcast series of the 2017-18 season among viewers 18-49 featured a multicultural lead character or prominent multicultural cast members, including Fox’s Empire and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, according to Nielsen.

More programming helmed by people of color is coming through the television pipeline, with networks greenlighting new projects from such producers as Lena Waithe (Showtime’s How to Make Love to a Black Woman (Who May Be Working Through Some Sh*t) and BET’s Twenties), Issa Rae (HBO’s Him or Her) and Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (OWN’s David Makes Man).

No ‘Peak TV’ Here

FX Networks and FX Productions chairman John Landgraf, who last year famously spoke of a coming peak in the nearly 500 original scripted shows currently on cable and streaming services, says there is room for multicultural content to grow.

“I think every year and every decade the United States becomes a more multicultural nation, and I think that is undeniable and irreversible,” Landgraf said. “I think that broadcasters and other programming services are rightly and correctly focused on the need to address the American viewership as they are.”

OWN president Tina Perry said shows such as the network’s Greenleaf and Queen Sugar provide unique characters and strong, authentic storylines that fill a niche that television has never before addressed to this extent.

“There’s been a lack of scripted options in storytelling within the TV landscape for years, and I think the industry is finally providing a diversity of programming that resonates with viewers,” said Perry, who noted that OWN is also teaming with TV producer Will Packer on a new primetime soap drama Ambitions, starring Robin Givens, that will air this summer.

TV One general manager Michelle Rice said the increase in multicultural content on the air — particularly in content targeting African-Americans — is partly a reflection of viewers’ desire to see images of themselves on the screen. African-Americans watched 48 hours a week of television content during third-quarter 2018, a full 13 hours more than viewers overall, according to a recent Nielsen Total Media Report.

In January, TV One launched Cleo TV, a new cable network targeting African-American female millennials that has received carriage from Comcast and Charter Communications, as well as streaming service Philo.

“This is an audience that is underrepresented by current content that’s on television,” Rice said. “We’re seeing that black is the new black, and we’re seeing that other distributors including streaming services like Netflix, are featuring shows with strong black leads, so this is a great opportunity to grow this particular segment.”

A Hunger for Representation

BET executive vice president and head of programming Connie Orlando added that the African-American population wants even more programming that reflects their stories and images. Her network is on pace to deliver its most prolific lineup of scripted original programming ever, with at least 10 original films, five scripted series and two unscripted series currently slated for 2019.

“As long as the content that’s coming is captivating, interesting and relatable, there’s no reason to stop it,” Orlando said. “There are millions of stories that we can and want to tell.”

BET will also welcome prolific producer Tyler Perry to the fold later this year as part of an exclusive multiyear production deal. “Tyler Perry’s coming is a drop the mic moment, and we’re all excited to see what he brings,” Orlando said.

FX’s Landgraf said while there’s still much progress to be made on the diversity front both in front of and behind the camera, the industry is moving in the right direction.

“Even as the industry consolidates and there are fewer rather than more programming purveyors, I still think that the moves that have been made to address all the viewers in America and to empower all the storytellers have enough momentum and business logic around them that they’re irreversible,” he said.


Get insights on the multiethnic video marketplace at the Multichannel News/Broadcasting & Cable Multicultural TV Summit in New York on April 30.
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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.