While television is often celebrated for bringing Americans together in a shared viewing experience, a study released yesterday shows a much different picture -- a nation divided, with a widening gulf between what blacks and whites are watching each night in prime time.
Of the 20 most popular shows among black viewers, only two -- ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football" and NBC's "ER" -- are also among the Top 20 with white viewers. Ten years ago, during the 1985-86 season, 15 of the Top 20 shows among black viewers were also among the Top 20 for whites, according to the 11th annual BBDO Report on Black Television Viewing. BBDO, one the country's largest advertising agencies, based yesterday's report on an analysis of Nielsen Media Research data for the first half of the 1995-96 television season.
"The report does show a continuing divide," says Doug Alligood, the senior vice president at BBDO who conducted the study. It grew from an attempt by advertising agencies to make more informed decisions when buying commercial time for their clients who wanted to reach African-American viewers.
It is not news to the advertising or television industries that blacks and whites have different preferences when it comes to television. This year's study falls in line with a six-year trend showing a sharp contrast between black and white viewing patterns.
Furthermore, in the last decade, mass media research has reached the point where the nightly television audience is no longer thought of by most scholars as a vast monolithic presence, but rather a collection of many audiences actively divided by gender, age, class, race and other factors.
While BBDO's report looks only at black viewing and compares it with white audiences and the total audience, similar -- though generally not as pronounced -- differences could also be found between white vs. Hispanic, Native-American or Asian-American viewers, as well between male and female viewers. "It is true, there is no public. There are instead many publics," says Alligood.
Yet, the popular perception remains that taste in television shows is somehow shared by all -- as was suggested by a recent TV Guide headline, "Why We Love 'Seinfeld.'"
A lot of people do like "Seinfeld," the NBC sitcom starring Jerry Seinfeld. According to the BBDO report, "Seinfeld" was the second most popular show both among white viewers and among all viewers. But "Seinfeld" ranked 89th with black viewers.
On the other hand, "New York Undercover," a police drama on Fox, is the favorite prime-time show among black viewers, but ranks 122nd with whites.
And, while the Fox sitcoms "Living Single" and "The Crew" rank second and third with black viewers, they finish in a tie for 124th with whites.
Of the Top 20 shows in black households, eight are from Fox -- a network that has reached out to black viewers.
But among white and all other households, Fox has no shows in the Top 20.
"ER," the hit doctor drama on NBC, is the show most shared by blacks and whites, finishing first with white viewers and 20th with blacks. It also finishes first among all viewers.
Also noteworthy in the case of "New York Undercover" is the fact that it is the only police drama to make the Top 20 with black viewers. NBC's "Homicide" and ABC's "NYPD Blue," which are regularly praised for their handling of racial issues, are not favorites with black viewers.
The report cited a correlation between the presence of black talent on screen and strong ratings with black viewers. There were no shows in the Top 10 among black viewers that did not feature black performers in starring or major supporting roles. But other factors, such as schedule position, also play a role in the ratings, according to BBDO.
For example, the presence of "Step By Step" and "Boy Meets World" -- sitcoms with all-white casts -- in the blacks' Top 20 is explained by their proximity on ABC's Friday night schedule to "Family Matters" and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," which feature black casts.
The most notable exception to the continuing divergence between black and white viewers comes with teen-agers age 12 to 17.
Eleven of the Top 20 shows were shared by the two groups.
"At certain times in our life, age is more a factor than race," Alligood explains. "I think lifestyle is a factor that brings teen-agers of different races together. For example, you might send your child to an all-white school, but the school will still probably compete in athletics with schools that have black athletes. Or, your kid goes to the mall and hears songs by black artists that they like."
Overall, the factor most often overlooked in analyzing the study is the expanded universe of prime-time programming, Alligood says.
"Again, yes, there is a divide. But part of that is a result of the fact that blacks and other audiences have more options. There is more available programming for people to choose from," Alligood says.
"Hollywood is more aware of the different audiences, and, so, everybody doesn't have to watch 'Seinfeld' or 'Friends.' There's a 'New York Undercover' or 'Living Single' made for them.
"For a long time, we thought everybody should like the same kinds of things. Hopefully, this kind of information helps us know better."
Pub Date: 5/02/96