A Long Overdue Discovery of Diversity in Television Viewership

Originally, another essay/post was going to be published as I wasn’t initially interested in a controversial Deadline article which mentions hit shows featuring minority casts such as Empire, How to Get Away With Murder and others. This isn’t to discuss the actual quality of the shows themselves or even throw another thinkpiece about the authenticity of how they depict characters. After all, my time tends to be consumed by NBA League Pass and whatever NHL game tickles the fancy. However, there’s been a recent trend of bewilderment in the media business about who watches what on television. It’s as fascinating as it is frustrating.

Many of you are aware of, if not are avid viewers of the FOX show, Empire. It’s been likened to the “new Scandal “as the first season had such a loud buzz on your social media timelines that it became a phenomenon, sensation and all other hype words that scream at you from magazine covers.

After the season finale, a Deadline article titled “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” got plenty of traction on social media for its incredible levels of tone deafness and honest-to-goodness stupidity.

Though the fervor has subsided some, what still stands out in the article a few days later was this one quip from Nellie Andreeva towards the end:

“While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.”

Wait, wait, wait… let’s read that again.

“While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now…”

Numbers may not lie, but they sure as hell can be tone deaf if delivered in such a dismissive way.

Since the 2000 Census was released, there had been a steady drum about the likelihood of the Latino population tripling in the U.S. by 2050 (estimates have recently been lowered). Advertisers rightly wanted to invest in the trend and have done everything from increasing ad spend towards Latinos to creating Hispanic-focused agencies to improve communication with the population. Two Spanish-language broadcast networks – Univision and Telemundo – have kept up with or surpassed English-language broadcast networks for a while now, including Univision besting ABC, FOX, CBS and NBC in summer sweeps for the 2nd year in a row.

However, you probably didn’t see a lot of tone deaf analysis about the fact that Latinos currently “represent only 13% (now 17%) of the U.S. population.” There are still major questions about their representation on English-speaking media, but the media industry at large still places huge bets on the population growth over the next 35 years.

(Asian-Americans have a HUGE bone to pick, if we want to stick with this tone deaf analysis. They are 4% of the U.S. population, and the fact that ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat is the first television show featured on an Asian-American family in two decades says a lot about how often the population is overlooked.)

I wonder if Andreeva or anyone else with a similar train of thought had paid attention to what happened at last month’s Oscars. The Academy Awards ceremony experienced a six-year low in viewership at 36.6 million viewers. What made it stand out further was that the 2014 ceremony had a ten-year high in viewership with 43.74 million watchers.

In the Indiewire article about the decline, Tambay A. Obenson highlights several other ceremonies that had over 40 million viewers in the last ten years (five) and the common thread between them; significant lineups of black nominees. While the word ‘boycott’ may be a little strong (disinterest may be more appropriate), it’s telling that a population of “only 13%” can be reflected so strongly, even if it’s still a live television event that draws such strong viewership year after year.

A lot of not-so-great things are said about Nielsen, the insights company most known for its television ratings, but one thing that its detractors cannot deny is that they’ve been telling their clients for YEARS that black viewership is a big deal. Andreeva said as much herself.

Want proof? Observe its annual consumer report on black Americans or better yet, this February summary on the use of multiple platforms.

Or take a glance at this Q&A at The Sports Fan Journal I did with Paulsen of Sports Media Watch last year about the importance of minority viewership in the major sporting events of 2013.

Or try the oldest research trick in the book; and ask your friends, family and colleagues.

When a broadcast television show hits it big, the hype for it within those in the know still eclipses the biggest cable shows you can think of, no matter how successful the latter may be. The major over-the-air broadcast channels potentially reach wider audiences than anyone on cable – though there are many cable channels with huge footprints across the nation – and that very reach is critical for the advertising dollars that help finance programming.

For those of you who aren’t fully aware, despite the shifts in the television industry, it is still an industry that still lives and dies by the shotgun approach. The majority of its advertising sales come from measuring itself against catch-all demographics of adults aged 18-49 and 25-54. As I recalled from a panel discussion I attended during Advertisng Week 2007 (2007!), someone quipped “what does an 18 year-old really have in common with a 49 year-old?”

Other than the 49 year-old possibly having an 18 year-old kid, there’s not much.

Now imagine if you consider ethnicity, gender, household income, household size, location, education level and other demographics even before looking into their actual behaviors and beliefs, casting a wide net for an audience can only tell you so much about who is really watching television.

The recent observations about the viewership of certain programs make it seem as if some media reporters had just learned that American minorities – especially black Americans – watch television. Even worse is the idea that they only need to be represented in doses, as if decades of underrepresentation on the small screen can be made up for in a trickle-down manner.

Now, is there a point to be made that the casting trends are just that, trends? Sure. Television is one big box of “me, too!” programming with the replication of ideas that took off at one network in hopes of striking gold for others. However, this is a trend long overdue to become a standard.

There’s a ton of inertia when it comes to accepting that television audiences are more diverse and complex than the simple ratings and viewership numbers may show. When it comes to some belated and/or tone deaf coverage, it appears that some observers need a bit more of a push into a longstanding reality.

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