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Shades of Grey: Television in Black and White

Recent trends in black and white viewership are changing TV's big picture, making it not so black and white.

A few months ago, I took on the topic of daytime TV convinced that, in 2013, after decades of population expansion and demographic shifts, there was no way that the daytime audience was still primarily stay-at-home moms…. But, in the process of researching and writing the article, I learned that despite a few evolving trends, the primary audience for daytime TV was, yes, stay-at-home moms.

Recently, when I decided to look at the concept of what I call primetime TV’s “self-segregation” -- that what whites are watching and what blacks are watching are two distinctly separate lists -- I assumed that I would, once again, find a deep and troubling divide. I had more than just a hunch to go on for this assumption. Back in 1996 I had read a stunning list, the top 10 shows among African-American viewers for a random week as determined by the A.C. Nielsen Company. It contained such shows as Living Single, Martin, New York Undercover, and Family Matters.

All these shows had at least a few things in common: 1. they featured predominately African-American casts and 2. they were no where to be found on Nielsen’s general list of “America’s” most popular shows. That top 10 list instead included titles like ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, and 60 Minutes. In fact, not only did these shows not factor into the general, overall Nielsen top 10, they didn’t even dent the top 20.

Little had changed by 2004 when, as reported by Nielsen, the top 10 shows "for" African-American audiences included Girlfriends, Half and Half, Second Time Around, Eve, One on One and America’s Next Top Model. Meanwhile, the top 10 in terms of sheer high numbers of overall viewers were such series as CSI, Desperate Housewives, Survivor, ER, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Only three shows found a place among both black and white audiences: Without a Trace, Monday Night Football and the aforementioned CSI.

Despite the overlap, I viewed this wide discrepancy between what whites watched and what blacks watched as deeply disturbing. Although I'm well aware that television ceased being the Great Unifier of the Nation from the moment we started getting more than one channel -- and especially after the cable television channel explosion in the early '80s -- the rising gap in popular viewing choices between these two groups suggested we were sociologically growing further and further apart not only in our tastes in entertainment but, perhaps, in everything else, as well.

Adding to this alarm, for me at least, were other non-TV trends of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. During that time, many high schools began planning and staging separate high school proms and graduation ceremonies for black students and other students of color. It was a trend that extended into the 2000s, as well. In 2004, in Toombs County, Georgia, Hispanic students took it upon themselves to hold their own separate prom specifically tailored towards their ethnicity. As recently as 2009, UCLA was holding a variety of graduation ceremonies which were divided up race, including those specifically for Hispanic, Vietnamese, and black students. There were also separate ceremonies just for women and one just for gay students.

Thankfully, the tide seems to have turned in the past couple of years—at least in some areas. In April of 2013, Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Georgia garnered national attention due to the fact that, after much public outcry, for the first time in its history, its high school prom would be an integrated one, black and white students together.

But what about TV?

During its Seinfeld / Friends rating heyday, NBC found itself unofficially tagged the “Nothing but Caucasians” network by a few vocal dissenters.

Still, the long-standing division of television viewing based along racial lines is a phenomenon that some fractions of the broadcast and cable industry have long depended upon and chosen to pursue and exploit. In the name of niche programming and financial solvency, carefully cast and “ethnically”-tailored programming has often been used either as a basic business model (BET, TVOne, etc.) or as a savvy early audience builder (as both FOX and the now–ceased CW originally did). And, so far, few viewers seem to be complaining.

The rising voluntary separateness of TV audiences, which probably dates back to the days of TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy and Julia, and which became more and more pronounced in the post-Cosby '90s, was something that was not only noticed by industry leaders, programming executives and advertisers but by other industries, as well. A case in point: since the early '90s, and greatly enabled by wider spread use of the company’s PeopleMeters, ratings giant A.C. Nielsen has been calculating and publishing a separate weekly top 10 list specifically measuring African-American viewers. This second report is still being generated today.

But a look at that separate list today is to find things are quite different than they were only a few years ago.

According to the Nielsen’s own website, for the randomly checked week of 25 May 2013, the top rated shows among all surveyed households were: NCIS; Dancing with the Stars (Monday); NCIS: Los Angeles; Dancing with the Stars (Tuesday); The Voice (Monday); The Voice (Tuesday); American Idol (Wednesday); 60 Minutes; American Idol (Thursday); Castle and CBS NCAA Basketball.

Meanwhile, the top 10 for African-American viewers for that same week contained eight of the same programs including American Idol, The Voice, 60 Minutes, NCAA Basketball, Dancing with the Stars and NCIS: Los Angeles. Only the Kerry Washington-starring drama Scandal (which notably grabbed the top spot in the African-American viewers list) and Grey’s Anatomy (which came in tenth on the list), were different.

For the week of 18 November 2013, sports was the great equalizer as three football games and one NFL aftershow made the top ten lists for both groups. But, they weren’t alone. Other shows included were Dancing with the Stars, Person of Interest, and NCIS: LA.

Some differences in black and white viewers still remain. The original NCIS is high for overall viewers but is notably absent from the top choices of African-Americans who prefer Scandal and (still) Grey’s Anatomy.

The differences are notable and seem to speak to some racially-based viewing preferences. The top-rated Scandal has a black female lead (only the second series in primetime TV history to do so, by the way; Get Christie Love! was the first) and Grey’s Anatomy retains an ample diversity in its cast. Furthermore, does NCIS: LA out rate its parent show, NCIS, because African-American rapper/actor LL Cool J is one of the leads?

Regardless, the rising commonality of these two lists is hopeful.

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