by Ileane Rudolph, TV Guide
BET is not alone anymore. For three decades, Black Entertainment Television has been the major provider of programs for and about African-Americans. Now more networks — like WEtv and OWN — are trying to reach those viewers, who make up about 13 percent of TV households and watch almost seven hours of programming per day. “This is an audience that’s been underserved historically,” says analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Media Group. “As the landscape has become much more competitive, it makes sense to see where the opportunities are.”
Since they started targeting black women, smaller, female-oriented cable networks have gotten a ratings boost. “These are women who watch a lot of television and don’t find a lot of programming out there,” says Lauren Gellert, WEtv’s head of original production. Thanks to Braxton Family Values; Mary, Mary; and Tamar & Vince, “We are building a very successful Thursday night,” Gellert says. Glam & Gold, with Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross and her husband, NFL player Aaron Ross, premieres this summer.
About 30 percent of OWN’s audience is black, says network president Erik Logan. The channel’s Saturday-night slate, with the self-help show Iyanla: Fix My Life and reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, easily wins the night in black women. (Coming up in April are the reality series Life with La Toya and Raising Whitley.) OWN has seen double-digit ratings gains over the last year, thanks in part to this strategy, and some analysts predict as much as a 10 percent ratings bump when the Tyler Perry sitcoms The Haves and the Have Nots and Love they Neighbor premiere on May 29.
BET, No. 1 with black adults 18-49 (excluding sports), is not ignoring the competition, says network market research chief Matthew Barnhill. “They make us make smarter decisions. We’re repositioning our brand,” he says, pointing to the successes of the new shows Real Husband of Hollywood — the No. 1 Tuesday telecast among black adults with 2.1 million viewers — and Second Generation Wayans, plus The Game, which returns March 26. “Our audience knows that we’re here 24/7 for them,” Barnhill says, taking a dig at “the networks that dip their foot in the pool one or two nights a week.”
Carroll believes that new niche networks — like Bounce, Aspire and Centric — can also succeed by reaching out to black viewers. “There’s always room for a well-programmed network targeting a specific audience, especially one with such loyalty to television,” he says. Not to mention money to spend. African-Americans would rank 15th in spending power if they were a country, says Barnhill. “The media is waking up to this opportunity.”