Television: Ratings Race

TV-viewing patterns go beyond black and white.


A recent study documents that while all television shows are broadcast in living color, most viewers choose to watch shows that might as well be filmed in black and white. Report on Black Television Viewing, published annually by BBDO advertising agency, finds that only three shows–ER, Monday Night Football, and NBC's Monday Night Movie–appear in the top 20 for both black and total households.

The disparity, based on ratings data from fall 1995, seems pretty substantial. For instance, the study notes that the number-one show among black viewers–Fox's New York Undercover–ranked 122 among white viewers. The top show among whites–the medical drama ER, which like New York Undercover features a mixed-race cast–ranked 20th among blacks.

Should we interpret such news as yet another indication that America's common culture has become increasingly balkanized? That seems to be the media consensus. Time, for instance, called its story on the study "TV's Black Flight."

"All told," notes Time, there are "six minority-themed shows on the Big Four networks. Three years ago, there were 12. Today the networks are scheduling either all- white shows (the sitcoms Friends, Seinfeld, Ellen, and Mad About You are set in urban centers, but the only thing black on them is the coffee) or, increasingly, shows with multiethnic ensemble casts, like the NBC dramas ER and Homicide or Fox's new sitcom Lush Life…and ABC's new Clueless. A significant number of minorities still appear on TV, but they are only intermittently at the center of the action."

Such concerns, however, are misplaced and misleading–and work to obscure the fact that television has become ever more responsive to consumer demand.

On a very basic level, it shouldn't be surprising at all that different demographic groups choose to watch different TV shows. As Cheryl Holmes, vice president of advertising and research at Black Entertainment Television–a cable network aimed at an African-American audience–told the Knight-Ridder News Service, "Of course viewers…relate to characters with similar backgrounds."

This is not, by any means, limited to racial or ethnic groups (nor is it absolute–Cosby, for instance, was a "black" show that nonetheless topped the overall ratings for five seasons). Hence, among the top 10 shows for children (of all races) aged 2 to 11, only two–Friends and Home Improvement–regularly appear in the overall top 10. Filling out the rest of the kids' list are, not surprisingly, shows that feature young casts and focus on plots about growing up. (Interestingly, the BBDO study notes that among youths aged 12-17, 11 out of 20 programs appear on both black and total household ratings lists.)

And the focus on "black" shows slights one of the more interesting and ostensibly progressive trends in TV over the past 15 years or so: an embrace of what Time refers to in passing as "multiethnic ensemble casts."

Shows such as The A-Team, Miami Vice, L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Homicide, NYPD Blue, and ER have all featured ethnically diverse characters to so great a degree that such casts no longer even call attention to themselves. The trend, which extends to sitcoms such as Barney Miller, The John Larroquette Show, and Dave's World, has given black actors in particular the opportunities to play multidimensional characters who are identifiably ethnic but not simply defined by their race. Current box-office star Denzel Washington, for instance, first came to prominence on St. Elsewhere.

Perhaps more important, fears of what one observer has called a new "form of social segregation" miss the larger point that the TV industry has actually acknowledged and acted on the demand for minority-oriented programming–that's why there's more of it. There will be a total of 17 "minority-themed" shows on network TV this fall, up from 14 during the past TV season (the number is higher still when cable, which serves about 65 percent of all households, is added).

Time concedes as much, but laments that "shows with predominantly minority casts have landed in the low-rent neighborhoods" of the WB and UPN networks, which didn't even exist a few years ago. While the two "mini-networks" and Fox, which aired a majority of the top 10 shows viewed by blacks in fall '95, perhaps lack the cachet of ratings champ NBC, the larger truth remains that viewers–minority and otherwise–will have more access to a wider variety of TV fare.

And it is precisely because some networks are smaller than others that they can target more-specific audiences such as blacks, or children (think of cable's Nickelodeon), or women (Lifetime), sports buffs (ESPN), music aficionados (MTV, VH-1, and TNN), or older people (TV legend Norman Lear has recently bandied about the idea of a cable network geared to folks over 50).

So while Fox's Living Single, the number two show among black viewers but one of the least watched programs among whites, does not draw a big enough audience for an ABC, NBC, or CBS, it can be fairly secure in its time slot opposite the number three (for all viewers) show Friends. Indeed, far from being a ghetto for black shows, the smaller networks have been a refuge for shows that otherwise wouldn't be on the air. CBS, for instance, developed but then passed on Moesha, a kid-oriented show with a black girl lead; UPN picked it up and it became the fledgling network's first hit. Similarly, when Sister, Sister, a sitcom that revolves around black identical twins, got sunk by ABC, the show resurfaced on the WB network.

There is a further irony underlying such niche-marketing success. Traditionally, critics of mass culture fretted that media such as television were incapable of serving the various interests of their disparate audiences. Now that alternatives exist along any number of demographic lines, critics worry about the demise of a common–if less representative and more harshly delimited–culture.