It’s no secret that Oprah’s OWN started off struggling. But a little more than a year ago, the network found an unlikely savior. It wasn’t Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz or any of the other large names that we often associate with Auntie O. It was, simply, black audiences. After the success of “Welcome to Sweetie Pies,” which became the network’s highest-rated show and helped increase OWN’s overall viewership, executives knew that they had struck gold. “Anytime you have a program that pops like ‘Sweetie Pies’ did, you start looking at what drove it,” OWN president Erik Logan told Adweek. “And we saw that the African-American audience really had a connection with that show… We’re going to look at ways to nurture and grow that.”
Since then, Oprah has had Iyanla fixing lives and has interviewed high-profile figures such as Bobbi Kristina, Rihanna, and Usher, who pulled in 3.5 million, 2.5 million, and 1.5 million viewers, respectively (Beyonce’s recent interview premiered to around 1.3 million viewers). Oprah’s recent deal with Tyler Perry made the network’s intention of wooing the black audience quite clear.
While other television networks may not have executives speaking as frankly as Logan did, it’s obvious that they, too, are catering to black audiences. Exhibit A is the all-black remake of Steel Magnolias from Lifetime, which debuted to 6.5 million viewers and is the network’s third most-watched original telecast. The same weekend, Abducted: The Carolina White Story brought in a hefty 4.1 million viewers. Lifetime’s executive VP of programming, Rob Sharenow, said that the network “couldn’t be happier” with the numbers, and that it spoke to “the powerful stories and performances delivered by amazing casts and the strong production teams behind each movie.” The films also spoke to black audiences, and that may have been instrumental in their success.
A recent Nielsen report on African American consumers found that African Americans watch an average of six and a half hours of TV a day, including live TV and DVR playback (the number is even higher for African American baby boomers). There were some interesting numbers on “black media,” which the report seems to define as “African-American media outlets” or “trusted environments where Blacks see themselves most often reflected”:
Though networks such as OWN and Lifetime aren’t black media in the sense that BET or TV One are, they are tapping into black audiences by putting more people on the small screen that look like them. We’ve seen it with TBS: Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns,” “House of Payne,” and “For Better of For Worse”–which is moving to OWN; we’re seeing it on TLC: “The Sisterhood” and “Best Funeral Ever”; and we can’t forget VH1 and Oxygen (who can forget the try and fail of “All My Babies’ Mamas”?).
What this means for black audiences is that they are getting to see more of themselves on TV, but everyone isn’t always happy with some of the portrayals. VH1’s Basketball Wives, Love & Hip Hop and their spin-offs are constantly criticized for showing largely black and Latina casts getting into violent altercations. But still, the viewers tune in, with the Nielsen report showing season two of “Love & Hip Hop” and season four of “Basketball Wives” ranking as the number two and three prime-time shows, respectively, among African Americans during the first half of 2012. Bickering WAGs to the side, it is refreshing to see a mainstream network take on something like an abducted black girl, as Lifetime did with Carolina White, when many feel that missing children of color are overlooked in the mass media.
So whether they like all the new material or not, black consumers–who will have a projected $1.1 trillion in buying power by 2015–are being courted by the mainstream media. And whether they want to admit it or not (I’m looking at you, Scandal reps), the mainstream media is cashing in.