Cable networks have rightly been lauded for offering more diverse programming than their broadcast counterparts. From ABC Family's Lincoln Heights (the only drama on TV with a predominantly African-American cast) to TNT's The Closer (cable's top scripted series, with a multiracial cast), cable provides a healthy amount of multicultural images in its original fare.
But a comparison of the top-10 most-watched shows in 2008 among black and white audiences shows how starkly different their tastes are in cable-network viewing.
According to a Disney/ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, only three shows — The Closer, ESPN's Monday Night Football and USA Network's 10 p.m. airing of WWE's Monday Night Raw pro-wrestling series — appear on both groups' top-10 lists.
ESPN's NFL telecasts topped the list for white viewers; TBS sitcom Tyler Perry'sHouse of Payne topped the rankings with African-American audiences. In fact, original House of Payne episodes at 10 and 10:30 p.m. secured the top two slots among African-Americans.
Counting repeats, House of Payne would represent six of the top 10 most-watched shows among African-Americans, knocking WWE Monday Night Raw, The Closer and even BET's Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is off the list.
While the lists suggest more differences than similarities between what African-American and white viewers watch, St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans sees the results more as a reflection of the rich diversity of cable programming choices that appeal to a cross-section of groups.
“The whole point of cable is niche viewing,” Deggans said. “Cable is all about super-serving very small pockets of viewers and maximizing those audiences.”
Still, a closer look at the results shows that, compared to African-Americans, whites are less willing to sample programming that is not culturally relevant to them.
While the top two most-watched shows among white viewers — NFL football and The Closer — finish among the top 10 shows for African-Americans, House of Payne doesn't even show up among the top 50 shows watched by white viewers, let alone the top 10.
In fact, while all but two of the seven top 10 most-watched shows exclusive to the white viewers' list can be found among the top 50 list for African-Americans, only one of the seven top-10 shows exclusive to the African-American list — USA's 9 p.m. airing of WWE Monday Night Raw — shows up in the top 50 list for white viewers.
“That's why programmers are so sensitive about creating shows that come from a different cultural perspective than that of white people,” Deggans said. “While black people will watch shows that are developed from a white cultural perspective, I think it's much harder to get white people to watch shows developed from a black cultural perspective.”
While cable encourages niche viewing among diverse groups and demographics, it wouldn't hurt to see more crossover viewing of the rich, culturally diverse fare that the networks have to offer.