Shows With Black Characters Find Loyal Non-Black Fans

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 11:10 am

Give up. You will never, ever catch up with every new TV show that's out there. There's a reason for that, says Melanie McFarland, television critic for Salon: "There were more than 450 new shows that premiered last year across broadcast, cable and streaming."

McFarland says she watches hours and hours of television each week, and she's not surprised to see that among the offerings are a number of shows with black main characters and/or storylines that have attracted a whole lot of non-black viewers. According to Nielsen, which regularly tracks American viewing patterns, non-black viewers account for more than 50 percent of the audience for shows like: This Is Us, Black-ish, Secrets and Lies, How To Get Away With Murder, Pitch, Insecure and Atlanta.

ABC's How To Get Away With Murder has a 68 percent non-black audience. It's part of the Shonda Rhimes powerhouse lineup of ensemble shows with multiracial casts — Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch. HTGAWM, as fans refer to it, centers on a black law professor (played by Oscar-winner Viola Davis) who is smart, powerful, attractive and not especially likable. Outside of soap operas, that's normally not an easy sell. But viewers tune in weekly to see what challenge Professor Annalise Keating tries to beat (or escape).

Black-ish, another ABC show, focuses on the affluent, suburban Johnson family. Dre Johnson is a successful ad exec, his wife Rainbow (she's biracial, with hippie parents) is an anesthesiologist. Their four children go to private school and want for nothing. Being able to provide for them makes Dre proud — but it also worries him: he is determined to keep his kids firmly grounded in the black culture he knew growing up in Compton. So there have been episodes that examine who can and can't use the N-word and what constitutes "real" blackness. And why it's so important to give The Nod to fellow black folks — even if they're strangers.

Courtney Jones, vice president of multicultural programming and strategy at Nielsen, says in many ways, Black-ish is "The Cosby Show 2.0." Both are about upscale, two-parent black families. Both succeeded across ethnic boundaries. But, Jones says, Black-ish, now in its third season, embraces racial issues rarely brought up on The Cosby Show.

"Micro-aggressions in the workplace, the tension around election results, police shootings," Jones says. "I think people are more comfortable having that dialogue now."

Some of those issues are portrayed in NBC's This Is Us. One of its main characters, Randall, is black and was adopted as an infant into a white family after his father gave him up. When someone suggests he's racially unaware as a result, Randall bristles — and launches into a memorable soliloquy:

"Because I grew up in a white house, you think that I don't live in a black man's world. you know the one: The one where that salesman there has been eyeballing us ever since we came in.That security guard has moved just a little off his mark so he can keep us in his sight. And where they'll definitely ask for an ID with my credit card when I go to pay — even though they don't ask for anybody else's. Plus a million other little things that I have to choose to let go."

It's gripping television, and although This Is Us had an almost 90 percent non-black viewership its first season (NBC just announced it's been renewed for two more), those viewers were moved by what they saw and heard, despite the racial tension that's sometimes raised in each episode. In one episode, Randall's young daughter is chosen to be Snow White in the school play. She is excited and blissfully unaware of the irony, and Randall is torn between leaving her in her bubble or gently explaining it's somewhat unusual for Snow White to be black. In the end, he decides to consider it a sign of progress: "the fact that my daughter doesn't find anything unusual in playing Snow White...that's the whole idea, right?" he says to his biological father, who he finds, using a private detective, as an adult.

Salon's McFarland says it might take black audiences a minute to settle into This Is Us, but Randall (played with intensity by Sterling K. Brown), may pull them in. "Here's this person who has a very high-powered position in a corporate firm, and still has to deal with a lot of issues that face a lot of black men," she says. Issues like hyper-surveillance in stores, racial profiling while walking through his mostly-white neighborhood — those are things many black viewers can identify with.

The fact that non-black audiences can sympathize with black characters like Randall means one thing, says Nielsen's Courtney Jones: "When a show is well-written, when they have great actors, people want to watch."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And here's an interesting fact from Nielsen, the audience research company. TV shows that feature predominantly black storylines are attracting predominantly non-black audiences. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team wondered why.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Television right now is an embarrassment of riches.

MELANIE MCFARLAND: There were more than 450 new shows that premiered last year across broadcast, cable and streaming.

BATES: That's Melanie McFarland. And she should know. She's the television critic for the online magazine Salon. She spoke to me via Skype. McFarlane watches hours and hours of television each week. And she's not surprised at the number of black television shows that non-black America is watching.

Non-black viewership is more than 50 percent for shows with black characters like "This Is Us," "Black-ish," "Secrets And Lies," "Pitch," "Atlanta" and "Insecure." ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder" has a 68 percent non-black audience. It centers on a powerful but not especially likable black law professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Either give me what I want or wake up tomorrow to a lawsuit that will color the entirety of your short run as university president.

BATES: The ABC sitcom "Black-ish" has a 79 percent non-black audience. It focuses on the affluent, suburban Johnson family. The dad, Dre Johnson, works hard to keep his private school kids grounded in black life. Here he's emphasizing the importance of recognizing other black folks, even ones his kids don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK-ISH")

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Babe, the nod is important. It's the internationally accepted yet unspoken sign of acknowledgement of black folks around the world.

BATES: Courtney Jones is VP of multicultural growth and strategy at Nielsen and says in some ways the Johnsons are resonating today with all kinds of audiences the way another black family did 30 years earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE COSBY SHOW" THEME)

BATES: Jones says "Black-ish" is "The Cosby Show" 2.0. Both are about upscale black families. But she says "Black-ish," now in its third season, embraces racial issues rarely brought up on "The Cosby Show."

COURTNEY JONES: Microaggressions in the workplace, the tension around election results, police shootings. I think people are much more comfortable with having that dialogue now.

BATES: Some of those same issues are present in NBC's "This Is Us." One of its main characters is black and was adopted as an infant into a white family. He bristles when someone suggests he's racially unaware as a result.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

STERLING K. BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) Because I grew up in a white house, you think I don't live in a black man's world? Oh, you know the one. The one where that salesman there has been eyeballing us ever since we came in here, or that security guard who's moved just a little off his mark so he can keep us in his sight, and where they'll definitely ask for an ID with my credit card when I go to pay even though they haven't asked for anybody else's, plus a million things every day that I have to choose to let go.

BATES: TV critic Melanie McFarland.

MCFARLAND: Here is this person who has a very high-powered position in a corporate firm and still has to deal with a lot of the issues that face black men.

BATES: The fact that mostly not black people are watching a show like "This Is Us," says Nielsen's Courtney Jones, proves one thing.

JONES: When a show is well written, when they have great actors, people want to watch.

BATES: Even if the people on screen look different than the ones viewers are sitting next to at home. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.