On TV, no longer black and white

Racial divisions blur as television viewers are sharing prime-time favorites like never before

Social Shift

August 12, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

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.

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