On TV, no longer black and white

The Baltimore Sun

A decade ago, the list of the top 10 TV shows favored by African-American viewers and the list of top shows among all viewers shared only one program: Monday Night Football.

But this year, for the first time in a generation, the polls on shows favored by white and black audiences are strikingly similar, in agreement on eight of the top 10.

Never in the 20 years that the data from Nielsen Media Research has been systematically compared based on race has such a convergence between black and white TV tastes emerged. After decades of living in largely separate TV worlds, black and white viewers are coming together to share the same prime-time experiences as never before.

"It's a significant change, and I think it's goodthat we're now sharing an experience and we're able to have a conversation about it -- to talk about it at the water cooler," says Jannette L. Dates, dean of Howard University's John H. Johnson School of Communications.

But Dates warns against easy explanations for such a shift in viewing habits and stresses the fact that the new audience unanimity has come at a cost to black expression in Hollywood and the larger culture.

"There are a number of reasons that blacks and whites are watching the same shows, but the biggest is that there are fewer network shows being made specifically for black audiences -- there's been a real narrowing of choice in the last year," says Dates, the author of Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, a landmark study of black identity and television.

Some of the shift might reflect wider social change beyond the TV screen: a larger and more prosperous black middle-class and an increasingly diverse suburban culture. But the change is also the result of an evolution within network television away from niche ethnic programming and more toward reality TV that, while sometimes derided as cheap and campy, has become a powerful draw across racial bounds.

Tausha Briggs, a 39-year-old security officer from Baltimore, used to favor Moesha, a sitcom that showcased the pop music star Brandy Norwood, and The Jamie Foxx Show, which gave rise to the actor who would go on to win an Oscar for his performance as Ray Charles.

"Those were some of my favorites," she says.

But the channels that carried those shows are gone. The UPN and WB networks, mid-1990s upstart programming sites that built their reputations with African-American-themed programs and black stars, merged last year into the CW, which has aimed at a broader audience.

Now Briggs finds herself watching more reality TV, shows such as Fox's American Idol and ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

"I like the fact that anybody can become somebody -- can win the competition and become a star -- on American Idol," she says.

The loss of the UPN and WB networks is the "narrowing of choice" to which Dates refers.

Among the top 10 shows with black viewers in 1996-1997 were two sitcoms on UPN: Moesha, and Malcolm & Eddie, which featured comedian Eddie Griffin and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who had played Theodore Huxtable in NBC's Cosby Show during its NBC run from 1984 to 1992.

The WB's top 10 entries that season: The Jamie Foxx Show, a comedy with Foxx playing an aspiring actor living in Los Angeles, and The Wayans Brothers, a sitcom starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans.

"The WB and UPN were targeting black audiences, and the black audiences responded by watching the shows that had black characters in them," says Dates. "Now, the CW offers far fewer shows of that type."

The CW cut the number of black-themed sitcoms and dramas by half for the 2006 season, and none of the series it kept finished in the top 10. Girlfriends, a CW sitcom about three successful African-American women, finished its eighth season in May as the 15th most popular show among black viewers, while The Game, a multicultural spinoff about wives and girlfriends of National Football League players, finished its first season in 20th place.

Meanwhile, the rise of reality TV, a genre criticized by some for alleged exploitation of racial and class divides within the larger society, has ironically become common ground among black and white viewers as producers carefully cast a multi-ethnic crew of contestants.

While such series as Seinfeld and Friends -- urban sitcoms that featured the comic interplay of all-white casts -- dominated the top 10 a decade ago, six of the 10 highest-rated shows for the 2006-2007 TV season were various editions of Fox's American Idol and ABC's Dancing with the Stars. In 1996-1997, there were no reality shows on network schedules.

"Minorities have a good chance when they watch a show like American Idol of seeing a winner. So, they feel it's a more level playing field," says Doug Alligood, senior vice president at the New York advertising agency BBDO, which 20 years ago pioneered the use of Nielsen Media Research to track black viewing patterns and compare them with overall audiences.

The intersection of race and popular TV and has long been a subject of interest, although it has been systematically measured only for the past 20 years as so-called People Meter technology provided more precise demographic data on people selected by Nielsen to track TV viewing patterns.

In 1950, singer-actress Ethel Waters became the first African-American who was cast as a lead performer in a nationally broadcast TV series -- playing a maid in ABC's Beulah. When Diahann Carroll portrayed television's first black professional woman as a nurse on NBC's Julia 18 years later, it was viewed as a breakthrough. In the 1970s, black performers starred as working-class characters in popular sitcoms created by white producers, including Redd Foxx in Norman Lear's Sanford and Son on CBS.

By the mid-1980s, NBC's comedy hit The Cosby Show enjoyed unusual crossover success among black and white audiences, as did a Cosby-produced spinoff set at a historically black college, A Different World, according to Alligood, author of BBDO's annual Report on Black Television Viewing.

But the viewing patterns of blacks and whites never aligned to the extent they did during the most recent TV season. Eight shows made the top 10 lists of both groups. Also, two of the shows that differed were merely different versions of a CBS crime drama -- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for audiences overall and CSI: Miami for black viewers.

"Clearly, there has been a significant change," says Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. (which owns 26 TV stations, including Baltimore's WBAL-TV) and a board member of the National Association of Minority Media Executives. "Reality shows have spread across every schedule and continue to multiply. In light of the combination of successful reality shows attracting a wider cross-section of viewers and the lack of new ethnically 'targeted' sitcoms for broadcast audiences, the reversal trend is likely to continue."

Nsenga Burton, professor of pop culture and media studies at Goucher College, says the most successful reality series today not only feature black contestants but also display differences within the African-American community.

"The black singers on American Idol have all been extremely diverse -- from poor to middle-class and beyond," Burton says. "They even have a range of people in terms of blackness. They have biracial people who have one black parent and one non-black parent. You have a whole range represented on those shows of how black people think about race, so you can always find yourself on those shows. And that's very appealing."

Such diversity was on display this season on American Idol, whose finalists included Lakisha Jones, Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks. Past seasons' winners included Ruben Studdard in 2003 and, in 2004, Fantasia Barrino, who went on to star in The Color Purple on Broadway.

Analysts also noted that the three dramas in the top 10 -- Grey's Anatomy (ABC), House (Fox) and CSI/CSI:Miami (CBS) -- star multiracial casts, in sharp counterpoint to the NBC sitcoms of the 1990s.

"That's the other thing about today: I don't have to tune into the CW to see black people, because I can look at Grey's Anatomy on ABC, and it's really good, quality programming that's well-written, -acted, -directed and -produced," Burton says.

While many observers caution against drawing broad conclusions about race relations based on the change in TV viewing during the past season, some analysts are encouraged by the new Nielsen data.

"At a time when it seems as if African-Americans are polarized in other areas of society like law or politics, there is one space where we can come together, and that would be in the form of entertainment," says Burton, citing the ways in which white youth have long imitated black musical culture. "Maybe we're not as divided as some people say we are."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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