As a semi-young, black, American citizen interested in developing his own media empire, I undoubtedly think about how race will play into developing an American-based media company for the next generation. The browning of America is undoubtedly changing the landscape of the media business, which means our television viewing habits will surely change, as will how advertisers use those television viewing habits to market their products to us.
Take for example some of the most recent phenomenons in television. First, a study conducted by Rincon & Associates found that 34% of second-generation Latinos, and 41% of third-generation Latinos watched The George Lopez Show. Second, Tyler Perry’s 10/90 deals for House of Payne and Meet the Browns on TBS churned out huge black audiences and major bucks for the cabler. Third, BET’s premiere of The Game on its channel led to the biggest cable audience a sitcom had ever seen at the time. And Fourth, the Spanish-language tele-novela La Que No Podía Amar consistently drew in over 5 million viewers for Univision.
Needless to say, there is a market for multi-cultural audiences, and folks like Tyler Perry, Kevin Hart, Jose Alberto Castro and all the folks at BET and Univision have been able to tap into it. But nobody has been able to do so with incredible consistency.
BET, while the name in black television, has been unable to establish a foothold as the preeminent voice in black television. Its roots with music got it off to a tremendous start as it captured many Gen Xers and most of the millennials during the 90s. However, the digital revolution left BET behind. As blacks began to over index in blogs, social media, YouTube and early technology adoption, BET fell behind–holding on to its roots in music far too long without bringing their content offerings and distribution methods to a new world order of black entertainment consumption.
On broadcast television, the success was also short-lived. Television history is littered with successful black sitcoms. From Sanford & Son and The Jeffersons, to The Cosbys and The Fresh Prince, many of blacks’ best comedians were able to transition into roles on television that black audiences fell in love with. But those shows, no matter how successful, rarely led to more success. Outside of Bill Cosby himself, no black actors from those shows parlayed their major or minor roles into other significant TV successes. The lone thing that inspired something of a birthplace (and rebirth place) for black audiences to ascend upon was The WB, and that turned out to be an experiment that just could not stand the test of time.
For latinos, cable has been the lone bastion of successful, latino-attracting television. Because on the broadcast networks, the TV shows simply don’t appeal to Latinos. Take the best shows on broadcast TV right now and you’ll see that none of them draw representative latino audiences. Modern Family, a show with a latina lead, plenty of diversity, and the second-largest sit-com audience on television only counts 6% of its viewers to be Latino. To put that in perspective, latinos make up about 13% of the households Nielsen counts among its studies. And that’s not just true of Modern Family. Last season on Two and Half Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee and NCIS, no show had more than 5.8% of its audience represented by Hispanics.
Outside of broadcast television, latinos have found much more of a connection with the content. Despite making up just 17% of the population, latinos purchase over 25% of the nation’s box office tickets. Turns out that big blockbuster events are big draws to latinos; perhaps as some of the reoccurring superheroes, fairy tales and novel characters have transcended throughout the Americas.
On cable, Univision has rained supreme, bringing in Hispanic audiences to watch its tele-novelas, soccer matches and news coverage. The success of the channel has been so great and so upward moving, that the channel has garnered outside investments and partnerships that assure its place right alongside major channels, like NBC, which it beat out in the ratings last spring. Furthermore, Univision remains a consistent top-finisher in the 18-49 demographic, as its viewers are a lot younger.
In my opinion, one of the major problems with attracting audiences of color is that we tend to fit the mold far less than the nation as a whole does. I love some of the new programming on BET, and I think their OP efforts will be well rewarded, but my parents aren’t watching it, and neither are many of my educated black friends. And on the Hispanic side, there were many latinos who loved The George Lopez Show (as shown by the aforementioned stat), but there were many who despised it. It was a polarizing show among latinos like very few other shows have been.
But that’s really a content issue, which while important, isn’t the way to think about approaching this problem for the next 30 years. Again, while I think the digital age has spurred the “content is king” adage to be more true than it ever has been, distribution is still the key. And if you are a creator of race-targeted content, you better learn to start controlling access to your content, or risk suffering the fate of BET.
Latinos and blacks, as underrepresented and financially challenged as they may be relative to whites in America, over index in areas where the underrepresented and financially strapped should not over index. Blacks and latinos are disproportionately active on social media, use smart phones and consume online video. If your content is not going after these youth in these places, your black or latino content company is destined to die.
Which is what worries me about some the media’s most recent adventures. Why on Earth is Starz launching “Encore Black”? First of all, the name is patently lazy. Yes, they should put a patent on all that lazy right there! Silly names aside, what makes them think this is going to be of any value down the road? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort. But BET is coming at us with Kevin Hart, The Game and Gabrielle Union. Meanwhile, Starz is opening its channel up with a movie marathon of Samuel Jackson. More importantly, Starz is opening up with a marathon period. Has Starz not gotten the memo? People don’t want you to tell them when and where they should watch content. They want you to let them view it anywhere. And for Starz to try to enter this place with no real content marketing strategy or non-cable-paying solution is just, for lack of a better word, stupid.
With all due respect, if you are going to try to make people pay a premium for your stuff on cable, you better be in sports, have the best shows on television or be targeting the widest and largest swath of people imaginable–even bigfoot should be interested in your channel. But if the only place I can find “Encore Black” is on a TV connected to a cable box, then I’m not going to find it, because I won’t care to do so. I’m sure somebody at Starz ran the numbers and thinks this will be a profitable venture, but it’s such short-term thinking (giving them the benefit of the doubt that repeats of Sam Jackson are even in the interest of the short-term) that I can’t imagine how some of these folks sleep at night when making such sleep-deprived decisions.
As for the latino efforts out there, there is a plethora of entities vying for the young millennial, latino audience. Unfortunately, there are far too many of them doing it. Everybody wants to be the ESPN of latino programming. Because what people see right now is an untapped market, set to grow in age, income and prominence, and they want to be there for the ride, much like ESPN was there for the ride as sports went from tape-delay to the sole beacon of hope for cable television. My man Robert Rodriguez, a content mastermind, is launching the El Rey Network. While if anyone can do it, it’s him, but I’m afraid in his attempt to the be the latino Tyler Perry, he’s not noticing what Perry does best–leave the distribution to someone else. While a commitment from Comcast certainly could help them both with distribution and their long-term viability, I feel like trying to reach 2nd and 3rd generation latinos on cable in 2013 is a failed proposition.
So here I am, full of words of criticism, 20/20 hindsight and blowhard expectations. Maybe I haven’t been all the way fair, but I’m just calling it like I see it. The black and latino races, and in particular Hispanics, are going to change the dynamics of America’s viewing audiences. And as they become a bigger and bigger part of the American population, having 6% of your audience be of latino heritage will no longer be an option–and neither will making them find you on a cable box either.
If I were launching a video network targeted at blacks or latinos, I’d start where they are: online. I think if Tyler Perry got his start today instead of in the early 2000’s, he’d be an internet mogul before he ever got to making plays and touring the country. That’s how he could have built a lasting, strong, easy-to-obtain brand in this media climate. Sure, there’s so much content out on the web, that it’s easy to get lost in the mix. But if I’m going to take $100 million of someone’s money to spend it on making a media empire, then I’m going to spend it fighting tooth and nail with any bargain-shop in the web. Maybe, I’d get my butt kick, but I think my odds online, you know–where the people are–might be better than my odds in a space where the most popular black woman on earth can’t find her footing: cable television.