A Nielsen report released in February reveals that television shows with a black lead or black cast draws a significant percentage of non-black viewers. Shows like Shonda Rhime’s Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder has nearly 70 percent non-black viewership. Black-ish, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, has almost 80 percent non-black viewership.
Shuntrell Rudolph, a black 24 year old pharmacy student at Florida A & M University believes the “fascination” of black people and the portrayal of black people as multi-faceted and not a monolith is what make black shows appealing.
“I think black shows are being consumed by majority of non-black audiences because black shows can show a diversity within the black community,” Rudolph said. “You have shows like Empire, who some think might exploit blacks in a negative way, but then you have shows like Black-ish who exemplifies a modern day wealthy black family. Shows like Underground show how strong black people were when they dealt with oppression. And just like then, other races have always been fascinated with black people.”
Throughout entertainment history, black creators have always had to grapple with the concept of cross-over appeal in order to be successful, despite black culture’s heavy influence on mainstream American culture. Nielson reported that 73% of non-Hispanic whites and 67% of Hispanics believe that African-Americans influence mainstream culture. Yet black men and especially black women have, for the most part, been kept out of writer’s rooms, directing, producing, or playing lead roles because of the idea that black content would not attract non-black audiences.
The earliest successful black television shows were from the late 70’s such as The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, and Good Times, then The Cosby Show in the 80’s. Still, outside of these shows it was rare to see leading black characters on TV. There have been moments in television history such as in the 90’s where there was an uptick of programming featuring black casts. There was In Living Color, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Living Single, and Girlfriends.
The periods where there was an increase of black television shows was almost always followed by a period where there was essentially none. This current black entertainment renaissance was ushered in by Shonda Rhimes with Scandal. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, the most powerful woman in Washington, D.C., and was the first black woman in over 40 years to hold a lead role in a primetime series.
Another notable finding in the Nielsen report is an almost inverse relationship between the percentage of non-black viewers a show attracts and the percentage of black viewers.
This is Us, which features only one black lead actor, Sterling K. Brown, as a black man adopted into a white family, has an 88.96 percent of non-black viewership versus a 11.05 percent black viewership.
26-year-old Shaza Hussein, a grad student at California Institute of Integral Studies and first generation Sudanese-American, thinks black television shows that are more popular among non-blacks are so because they are palatable to white audiences.
“I watched This is Us and gave up on it,” Hussein said. “I watch Sense8, of which one lead character is African. I watch Insecure for sure, since it’s days as Awkward Black Girl. I feel like a lot of black shows and black lead shows get non-black viewership because they are made for non-black people ultimately. If it were actually made and coded for black people it would probably be deemed too niche.”
“That’s how I felt about This is Us and that’s why I stopped watching. It felt sort of one dimensional and I felt like it was made for a white audience. I watch Sense8 because half the main cast is non-white so it’s diverse all around and the characters have complex identities not stereotypically based on their racial identity. I watch Insecure for the same reason.”
Shows like the reality TV hit Real Housewives of Atlanta, Empire, Atlanta are more steeped into black culture and reality and attract more black viewers than non-black viewers.
Brandon Beverly, a 30 year old black resident thinks that reality television resonates with the black community because “we relate to the trauma or drama.”
“A lot of [black] people didn’t like The Cosby’s in the 80’s because they said it wasn’t realistic,” Beverly said. “White people adored Bill Cosby. Same thing with Fresh Prince. White people loved Fresh Prince, black people loved Martin.”
“If black TV shows were like Spike Lee movies or Daughters of the Dust they would be less watched [by non-black audiences,]” Hussein said. “Some black shows aren’t showing black english or poor black people or even really speaking to black social reality, they just have black people.”
The success of shows like Insecure or Atlanta, series that depict black reality, show a promising future for black content creators who are hoping to build on the work of Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Lee Daniels Ava Duverney, and Donald Glover. With the increasing number of rising black voices, perhaps the trend of diverse black programming becomes a norm.