This creative awakening stems in large part from a bottom-line revelation: What was once considered only a niche market is now valued as an eager and highly engaged television audience.
“For marketers, our data shows that 73 percent of whites and 67 percent of Hispanics believe African-Americans influence mainstream culture,” said Andrew McCaskill, the senior vice president of communications and multicultural marketing at Nielsen. “Creating smart, culturally relevant advertising campaigns that are inclusive of minority populations allows brands to build loyalty within communities of color while maintaining general population acceptance.”
A recent Nielsen analysis of TV viewership, “For Us by Us?: The Mainstream Appeal of Black Content,” found that between 2011 and 2015, ad dollars placed on shows whose viewership is more than 50 percent black increased by 255 percent.
At the same time, the rise of streaming services like Netflix and the continued proliferation of quality series from cable networks like AMC and FX have spurred other networks, both old and new, to keep pace. No longer are reruns, videos and cheap reality and talk shows enough to guarantee viewers and ad dollars.
OWN’s creation, in partnership with Discovery Communications in 2011, was marked by missteps: a lack of identity, low ratings and a failure to attract the white female viewership that made “The Oprah Winfrey Show” the most successful talk show in television history.
But by 2012, OWN found a glimmer of hope with the docu-series “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” about Robbie Montgomery and her family as she runs a soul food restaurant in St. Louis.
“I think we were a little surprised about how successful ‘Sweetie Pie’s’ was going to be,” Erik Logan, the president of OWN, said. “Upon reflection, the show worked because the central character in that show, Miss Robbie, is somebody that our audience could see themselves in. She was a single mom, she raised her son, Tim, who fell into crime, became incarcerated, came out of prison and is dealing with a very real issue that is facing the community at that time and even still today. What it taught us was that we need more authentic, real story lines.”
Inspired by that success, Ms. Winfrey then partnered with the movie hitmaker Tyler Perry to produce shows, including “The Have and Have Nots” and “If Loving You Is Wrong,” exclusively for OWN. “What his shows did,” Mr. Logan said, “was shine a light on a different style of storytelling for us and the network: the scripted word.”
In 2016, OWN added two dramas: Craig Wright’s megachurch drama, “Greenleaf,” and “Queen Sugar,” a Lousiania-set drama about the Bordelon siblings, all of whom are battling their own demons, one another and the neighboring Landrys, a white family that wants to buy the Bordelons’ sugar mill.
OWN’s prime-time schedule is now 75 percent original scripted programming, and the ratings have followed. In the last five years, its prime-time audience has grown by 46 percent (to 455,000 from an average of 311,000), while African-American viewership has grown by 168 percent (to 298,000 from 111,000).
“When we started to gather the OWN tribe, and recognize who had come, the question in our meeting rooms was how do we now serve this audience — who is this woman?” said Ms. Winfrey. “She is an intentional seeker, she’s the kind of person who’s watching ‘Super Soul Sunday’ as her church. Many of them are single moms who are working, but who have dreams for their lives, their children’s lives, they’re in relationships, they’re getting married again. So we try to meet them where they are and serve them in an intentional way that reflects their lives back on themselves.”
Ms. DuVernay, who admits to being courted by other cable networks, ultimately chose OWN for “Queen Sugar.”
“I think there’s been historically many artists who have tended to center black women in their work; the question is the compatible distributor, the compatible broadcaster who is also centering them and delivering that work,” she said. “Until OWN we didn’t have anything specifically for women of color. Not like we are only for women of color, but we can say ‘There’s something special here for you.’ The beautiful thing about cable is that we can say ‘We are for this.’”
At BET, which was known for the R&B and hip-hop music video shows “Video Soul” and later “106 & Park” since its debut in 1980, a similar transformation was underway.
“I knew our audience had been demanding a scripted product from us — they wanted us to look like any broadcast network, whether it’s ABC or NBC, said Debra Lee, who became president and chief executive of BET Networks in 2005. “They were very proud of BET, because we were the only network targeting the African-American community, and yet they wanted to see authentic, realistic versions of themselves.”
The first move came in 2011, when BET picked up Mara Brock Akil’s dramedy “The Game,” which had run on CW before it was dropped. It immediately set a network record, drawing 7.7 million viewers.
“That one show proved the case that if we gave our audience high-quality programming, they will show up,” Ms. Lee said. “Those numbers were just incredible, and no one mentioned the fact that BET was now producing it, not CBS. They didn’t see any quality difference in the show.”
The network followed up with Ms. Akil’s drama “Being Mary Jane,” which stars Gabrielle Union and became BET’s highest-rated show. This year, BET introduced “Madiba,” a mini-series on Nelson Mandela, played by Laurence Fishburne, and debuted two African-American female-led dramas, “The Quad,” about life at a historically black college, starring Anika Noni Rose, and “Rebel,” the director John Singleton’s mash-up of “a little Black Lives Matter seriousness with a lot of nostalgic blaxploitation entertainment value” (as Mike Hale wrote in The Times in March).
But changing course is not easy. “It took a while to get into scripted, especially when you’re coming from a music video background,” Ms. Lee said. “The investment is more, and we had to get different programming executives and development people. It really changes the business of the whole network, and now scripted programming is the cornerstone of what we do at BET.”
But rather than rebrand entirely, BET uses its scripted programming to draw from its musical past — the BET Awards show remains the network’s signature event. Dramas like “The New Edition Story,” a mini-series that drew an average of 4.4 million total viewers, and Irv Lorenzo’s hip-hop-themed “Flags,” debuting on June 27, demonstrate that cultural continuity.
But there are limits to this embrace of smart scripted programming. “Underground,” the critically acclaimed drama about slaves attempting to escape a Georgia plantation just before the Civil War, was recently canceled by WGN America. But both OWN and BET have passed on adding the bauble to their lineups, the $5 million-an-episode tag too pricey.
“I wanted to be able to save that show,” Ms. Winfrey said, “but it did not make good business sense for me.”
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