Cable networks using Black sitcoms to draw more viewers



By Charles Hallman
Staff writer

According to Nielsen, Blacks watch almost 40 percent more television than any other group. As a result, Black-themed sitcoms and reality shows seemingly are now hot properties on cable.

But not on just BET, TV One and Centric, three Black-oriented channels, but several mainstream outlets as well: TV Land has The Soul Man. Nick at Nite has Instant Mom. Tyler Perry’s House of Payne has been on TBS since 2007, and Meet the Browns debuted on the same channel two years later in 2009. These shows “have paved the way for the acceptance of Black-themed scripted fare,” wrote R. Thomas Umstead in his cover story on Black programs for the February 3 edition of Multichannel News.


R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

“When I started to look at the landscape… I started to see more and more [Black shows] pop up on cable than the broadcast networks,” said Umstead in a recent MSR phone interview. He explained his article’s three-fold purpose: “One, why were these shows being launched; two, who’s launching them, and three, is it something that you’re doing now and it’s ending or will it continue. These cable networks that are launching these shows understand that [they] build value by having a broader audience than some of these general entertainment networks.”

The Multichannel News programming and multimedia editor also wrote that today’s Black sitcoms “feature characters that reflect a more upscale image of African American life,” more like The Cosby Show than Good Times from the 1970s that were both popular but oft-criticized for their depictions of lower class, inner-city Blacks.

“I haven’t heard of a lot of these shows that have been launched,” admits Umstead. “It’s great to see this… these shows are great and doing well — but I caution that I would like to see more of this happening.”

When asked if this latest trend of Black shows on cable being used to build audiences is similar to what Fox, the old WB and UPN did in the mid-1990s when these start-up networks then aired shows like In Living Color, Martin and The Parent ‘Hood.

“The difference between what we are talking about now and back then is that those [networks] were trying to establish themselves as general entertainment networks, [with] a much broader audience,” responded Umstead. “If you look at WEtv, which has a number of African-American targeted shows that are focused on women, their core audience, and African American females watch more television than any other group [an average of seven and a half hours according to Nielsen].

“I doubt very much that [the network] would put together these shows and then once they get a certain viewership, they pull back and back away,” he points out. “I think these cable networks that are more niche-oriented look to keep these African American audiences that they are looking to reach right now.”

Umstead points out that TV Land’s typical audience is 50-plus: “When they have shows like Soul Man, they are trying to reach a group that focuses on everybody across the board.”

Starz also rebranded its former Encore Drama channel late last year into Encore Black and is running classic broadcast sitcoms such as What’s Happening and Amen. “I was initially surprised because Encore offers movies,” says Umstead. “To go back and get these sitcoms from back in the 70s, that did surprise me. But when I talked to them, they said ‘people like to tune in and tune out, and like to see something they already grew up on or they like.’ They offer it commercial-free — I think that was a smart move.”

However, there still seems to be a tendency to air more Black comedies than Black dramas.

“That is a question that I ask the various cable networks,” notes Umstead. “I think the fact that OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network is doing so well with The Haves and the Have Nots, which is a drama from Tyler Perry, has opened a lot of eyes that this works but you got to give these shows time to build an audience.

“I think the networks are reluctant to give a drama time to really develop — it really needs almost a year like, which is what Oprah did,” surmises Umstead. “OWN gave The Haves and the Have Nots a year to develop — it didn’t catch on right away, but it really picked up and the story lines developed, and the viewers became interested and knowledgeable about the characters. I think that you will start to see a couple of more focused or targeted networks try African American dramas.”

Is cable more progressive than traditional broadcast channels? “I think the cable industry more so than the broadcast networks understand the value of diversity, understand the value of offering content that reaches out to a wide range of audiences and they are not just going for the mainstream,” believes Umstead. “They are focused on targeting various groups that watches a lot of TV and are paying to subscribe to cable, and are focused on creating content that’s different than what’s already out there in the marketplace.

“I think the next step is to keep an eye on the new generation of distribution outlets like the Netflix’s and the Hulu’s of the world — they are going to start to realize that African Americans and Hispanics are watching and subscribing for digital content. They are watching [shows] on their phones and on their tablets.

“I think that’s the next frontier for this type of programming, to go beyond the cable platform and go into the digital realm,” concludes Umstead. “I’m hoping to write about that down the line.”


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