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For Us By Us? The Mainstream Appeal of Black Content

4 minute read | February 2017

From music to movies, fashion and art, Black Americans have long played an important role in shaping popular culture in the U.S., and that influence remains strong. In fact, 73% of non-Hispanic whites and 67% of Hispanics believe that African-Americans influence mainstream culture. And this effect is clearly visible in the current TV season. According to a recent Nielsen analysis of TV viewership, several programs with a predominantly black cast or a main storyline focusing on a black character are drawing substantial non-black viewership.

While this isn’t the first time in history that a TV program with a black lead has drawn non-black audiences—think of “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Cosby Show”—what’s unusual now is the sheer number of such programs that are carrying cross-cultural appeal.

Looking at the 2016-2017 television season, severals shows stand out:

  • With 89% non-black viewership, “This Is Us,” NBC’s Golden Globe-nominated ensemble dramedy, includes Sterling K. Brown as a black businessman raised by white parents and tackles topics such as drug addiction, racism, homosexuality, alcoholism, adoption, obesity and cancer.
  • ABC’s hit sitcom “Black-ish” follows a father and husband (Anthony Anderson) who’s trying to create a sense of black cultural identity for his affluent family of four and has 79% non-black viewership. Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays his wife, won the best actress in a comedy series Golden Globe for her role.
  • Three-fourths of the viewers are non-black for “Secrets and Lies,” the ABC crime drama that revolves around the biracial heir (Michael Ealy) to a Charlotte, N.C., equity firm and the murder of his wife.
  • ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” is the Shonda Rhimes hit drama starring Academy Award winner Viola Davis as a criminal defense professor who gets entangled in a murder plot. Sixty-nine percent of the show’s viewership is non-black.
  • Sixty-eight percent* of viewership is non-black for ABC’s “Scandal,” another “Shondaland” thriller featuring Kerry Washington as a media consultant to the president.
  • With 63% non-black viewers, Fox’s “Pitch” is a dramedy about the first woman, a black woman, to play baseball in the Major Leagues.
  • “Insecure” is the HBO original comedy series co-created by Golden Globe-nominated Issa Rae. Inspired by Rae’s popular web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” viewership is 61% non-black.
  • Half of viewership for the newcomer “Atlanta” is non-black. The show, a Golden-Globe winning comedy-drama on FX created by and starring Donald Glover, centers on two black cousins navigating the Atlanta rap scene.

“Much of the American narrative lately has focused on a growing cultural divide. But Nielsen’s data on television programming show something different,” says Andrew McCaskill, senior vice president, Communications and Multicultural Marketing, at Nielsen. “Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations. That insight is important for culture and content creators, as well as manufacturers and retailers looking to create engaging, high-impact advertising campaigns.”

Some of these programs wade into the real-world tensions of today. Episodes of “Black-ish” have included discussions on police brutality and political upsets, provoking debate on social media.

Though some shows with a strong black identity may not pull a majority non-black audience, many still have noteworthy non-black viewership. One of the most widely acclaimed programs of recent seasons, Fox’s “Empire,” which stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as ex-spouses grappling over the future of a multimillion-dollar hiphop company, is one such example. “Empire” has commanded nearly 40% non-black viewers on average each week. Interestingly, both Fox’s STAR and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta pull comparable numbers.

It’s also noteworthy how a predominantly black audience—63% for Empire—can propel a show to Emmy-nominated, award-winning mainstream success. Henson took home a best actress Golden Globe last year for her portrayal of Cookie, and Cover Girl recently announced a makeup collection inspired by the hit show. These accolades offer further evidence of a cultural recalibration in which black voices increasingly are heard. That coincides with rising affluence and education levels, illuminated in the recently released report, “Young, Connected and Black: African-American Millennials Are Driving Social Change and Leading Digital Advancement.”

The report delves into the spending and viewing habits of African-Americans overall and quantifies their greater appetite for television content as one driver of the dramatic increase in diverse television programming. Between 2011 and 2015, broadcast network TV ad spend focused on black audiences (defined as ad dollars placed on programming with greater than 50% black viewers) also increased, by 255%.

*Scandal figures represent the 2015-2016 TV season.


The insights from this article are derived from Nielsen NPOWER, Persons aged 2+, Broadcast and Cable, Live +7 Days, TV with Digital, TV with Video on Demand (VOD), Sept. 19, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017.  

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