Tastes are judged as conservative and favoring African-American casts


December 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Baltimore viewers like the Fresh Prince, Bill Cosby and the folks on "Family Matters" more than viewers elsewhere. But they like Dr. Joel Fleischman, "Coach" and the gang on "Saturday Night Live" less.

For more than 30 years, critics have been warning about network TV homogenizing national taste and culture. But there are still significant differences in viewing patterns and preferences from city to city and from region to region

One way to find out some of those patterns is by tracking favorite shows in the Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. And the first thing such a survey of Baltimore viewers indicates is the decided preference for series featuring African-American characters.

"The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" -- an NBC series starring Wil Smith as a teen-ager from Philadelphia sent to live with rich relatives in Bel Air -- is typical. Of all the regular network series that aired in November, "Fresh Prince" was among the 10 most popular in Baltimore. But nationally it failed to even make the top 20.

Other shows that do better locally than nationally include: "Family Matters," "A Different World," 'Martin," "In Living Color" and "Roc." All are shows with African-American casts.

The explanation for their appeal in Baltimore is not complicated.

"Any program that appeals to African-American viewers will tend to do better in Baltimore because of the [viewing] population here," said Phil Stolz, general manager at WBAL (Channel 11). According to the most recent Nielsen data available, Baltimore has the largest percentage of black TV households of any city in the top 25 markets -- almost double the percentage nationally. While black households account for about 12 percent of all TV households nationally, they make up 22.9 percent of the Baltimore market. In terms of number of black viewers, Baltimore ranks ninth.

And viewing patterns and preferences differ from one ethnic group to another. Recent Nielsen research shows, for example, that blacks watch significantly more TV than all others. Black households watched TV for 69 hours, 48 minutes during the average week vs. 47 hours, 6 minutes for other households -- a 48 percent difference. And when you compare the top 10 shows among black viewers to the top 10 among white viewers (for the most recent survey available of African-American viewers -- May 1991) you find that only "Cheers" makes both lists.

Stolz says "You Bet Your Life" -- the Bill Cosby syndicated show that was canceled last week -- is a good example of how those factors affect ratings in Baltimore. "The performance of Cosby's 'You Bet Your Life' in Baltimore was probably the best in the country," he said. "But in other parts of the country, Cosby's show just didn't cut it."

The November ratings bear that out. "You Bet Your Life" averaged about a 10 rating for Channel 11 in Baltimore, while it managed only a 4 rating elsewhere. Bruce Binenfeld, program manager at WNUV (Channel 54), said the size of the African-American TV audience in Baltimore is a key factor in what his station goes after in the syndicated market. Channel 54 has been scoring for several years in ratings with shows featuring African-American characters. One of the station's hottest shows right now -- especially with young viewers -- is "A Different World" in rerun.

The size of the African-American audience is easily the most important single thing to know about television in Baltimore. The importance of that audience plays a role in almost every aspect of local TV.

For example, an article in the November issue of the Washington Journalism Review decried the lack of African-American male news anchors across the country. But Baltimore has black men anchoring all three of the affiliates' 11 o'clock newscasts -- Al Sanders at WJZ (Channel 13), Stan Stovall at WMAR (Channel 2) and Rod Daniels at Channel 11. No other city's top three male anchors are black.

Furthermore, blacks are starting to move into management. Marcellus Alexander is the general manager at Channel 13. And last year, Channel 11 hired David Roberts to be news director, while Channel 2 made Willy Walker assistant news director.

Beyond the race factor, defining specific qualities that distinguish Baltimore from other TV markets gets more difficult.

There is a sense, at least among some station executives, that Baltimore viewers also tend to be conservative in their tastes. "I think Baltimore is a little more conservative than the rest of the country," Binenfeld said. "I think, for example, Baltimore viewers don't like the tabloid stuff or more sexually suggestive material that might play in other parts of the country."

He cited the performance of reruns of "Married With . . . Children" on WBFF (Channel 45) vs. reruns of "Sanford and Son" on his station at 11 p.m. weeknights. " 'Married With . . . Children' is a monster elsewhere in the country, but not here," Binenfeld said. "Married" does only as well as the much older "Sanford" in Nielsen ratings. In Arbitron, "Married" loses to "Sanford."

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