Making the connection

The African American TV audience is dedicated, but studies say it's underrepresented by content providers.
March 1, 2009

There are over 14 million African American television-viewing households in the United States, whose TV viewing habits are 49% above that of other ethnicities. Despite the fact that this demographic is typically the largest consumer of television, it is still an underrepresented, and sometimes misrepresented, audience.

According to a Nielsen Media Research study of the first and second quarters of 2008, African Americans watch an average of six-and-a-half hours of TV daily. The television viewing habits of African American audiences are holding strong. But while this audience is watching the most television of any ethnic group in America, programming specifically targeted at this demo is based on only a handful of channels – BET and TV One, for the most part – or is saved for Black History Month each year.

In terms of what’s being watched, the top-rating programs for this demographic tend to be award shows and reality competition shows. This isn’t much of a change since Nielsen’s targeted study of African American audiences in 2006, measured by Local People Meters. At that time, the top-rated shows were the Academy Awards, with the NAACP Awards and Soul Train Music Awards not falling far behind. Also in the top ten highest-rated programs for this demo were reality shows, with American Idol in the lead. Jump ahead to 2009 and it looks pretty much identical. The top four highest-rated shows for the week of February 16 to 22, 2009 were the Academy Awards, a Tuesday edition of American Idol, Wednesday’s edition of American Idol and ABC’s Oscar red carpet coverage, in that order.

Ross Grimes, media supervisor for Tapestry (a multicultural unit of Starcom MediaVest) says that while African American viewers do watch some of the same programs as the general market, they watch these shows through a different lens.

For instance, looking at the ratings information from the week of the American Presidential election, when 60 Minutes aired a segment on Barack Obama it placed in the top 10 for African American viewers. Grimes also points out that NFL playoffs grab a lot of ratings with this audience, and he feels it has a lot to do with the fact that there are many African American players that share stories specific to this audience. ‘I think people want to see more of themselves on TV, and that’s [in] reality shows and across the board, but [it's] specifically [true] for African Americans,’ says Grimes.

‘If you want to reach [this audience] I would suggest trying to go into those vehicles that they can see themselves in,’ concurs Jordan Breslow, director of broadcast research for MediaCom.

This sentiment is very much in keeping with a study conducted by Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) entitled Beyond Demographics. The study, which debuted at the end of 2007, aimed to prove that marketers needed to strengthen their connections with the African American audience while redefining the way they viewed, valued and represented it.

Within the study, researchers reveal a factor that they say profoundly impacts the African American population, which they call ‘The Struggle.’ As this community has overcome pain and challenges in the past, it has gained strength to feel empowered as individuals and as members of a community in the present. This is one of the key elements, according to the study, for finding ways to engage this audience. John Wilson, SVP and chief TV programming executive at PBS sees this nuance as important. ‘As a people African Americans have a specific shared history that I think is complex, and at the end of the day it’s the individual’s history that matters most to them,’ he says.

It’s also important to not see this or indeed any audience as uniform. ‘There are a number of different nuances [to this audience], and I think you have to go beyond just the age breakdown and focus on some of the psychographics and the motivations within [it],’ says Matthew Barnhill, SVP market research for BET.

According to Esther Franklin, EVP and director of cultural identities for SMG Multicultural, this misconception is part of the reason SMG undertook the Beyond Demographic study in the first place. ‘We knew we needed a way to reframe the African American community in the marketplace because it’s a community that most advertisers and marketers feel they already know,’ she says.

In order to expand the view of this demographic and the programming options for it, SMG identified 12 archetypes in order to illustrate the breadth of identity types within the African American community, broader than what’s generally considered by the media. These identities range from ‘Trustees’ (the trusted leaders and statesmen of the community) to ‘Metaphysicals’ (those who are in touch with mind, body and spirit) to ‘Gazelles’ (self-starters who foresee the community on the verge of tremendous social and entrepreneurial growth).

‘I do feel that the portrayal of the community [has been] distorted into maybe three or four of the identity buckets,’ says Franklin. The archetypes that have been consistently portrayed as the face of the African American community are ‘Fly Girls’ (glamour girls looking for fun) and ‘Playas’ (street-smart and tech-savvy young men), followed by ‘Buppies’ (success-oriented individuals and families), ‘Backboners’ (middle class working individuals) and ‘Devouts’ (church and community-focused people). Though Franklin feels that there has been some progress made, based on SMG’s findings, most of the African American community is going unaddressed.

One of these mostly underrepresented archetypes is the ‘Thrivals,’ a generation of African Americans who see a new future of opportunity for themselves and are independent thinkers. This archetype was originally identified by Nat Irvin, professor, futurist and co-author of the Beyond Demographics study, in a 2004 article he wrote for The Futurist entitled ‘The Arrival of the Thrivals.’ According to Irvin’s description, this group is ‘the first generation of blacks who will aggressively compete in the battle to shape the images, ideas, and the future of global culture, business and commerce, science and technology, education, politics, the environment, the arts and the role of non-governmental organizations.’

Irvin calls this group Thrivals because they are the result of a shift from living in survival-mode – fighting for basic human rights – to seeing themselves as ‘forces capable of shaping the future rather than being shaped by the forces of the future.’ According to Franklin, Thrivals have the most global perspective of all the African American identities and, therefore, have a different orientation to media. While TV remains an important medium for thewm, the Internet is more important to Thrivals than most of the archetypes identified, while Backboners are much more traditional and TV-focused.

Once content providers and markets broaden the approach with which they create content for African Americans, they then need to stand by them. ‘It’s a challenge to get content providers to stick with this audience,’ says Grimes. That’s surprising given the stats. Despite the fact that African American audiences watch more television than any other ethnic group, and programming targeted at African American audiences continues to rate, a lot of networks are moving away from these programs, says Grimes. ‘The audience is underserved and under-leveraged. They are searching for content and they need more opportunities to connect with the images they see.’


- The African American market represents more than $850 billion in annual spending. This buying power is projected to increase significantly as the African American population grows and exerts consumer influence. (source: Beyond Demographics, Starcom MediaVest Group)

- African American adults read an average of 11.9 magazines per month versus 9.1 for the general population. (Source: Magazine Publishers Association)

- African Americans spend an average of $62 per month on cable, versus $58 for the total average. (Source: State of Urban Broadband Markets Report)

- African American visits make up 49% of the viewing audience for general music websites and 55% of the audience for entertainment websites. (Source: Yankelovich Multicultural Marketing Study, 2008)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.