Strong African-American voter turnout is credited with helping re-elect President Obama, and African-American targeted public affairs and political satire shows on cable played an important role in keeping black voters engaged and excited about re-electing the country’s first black president.
For example, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele sketches lampoon the furor over President Obama’s birth certificate, while on TV One’s Washington Watch, an informative roundtable features a discussion about voter suppression. These shows helped keep viewers engaged in political issues and ultimately pushed African-Americans to voting booths, according to the show’s hosts.
Now, those shows are challenged to maintain that interest, and even increase their audiences as the president heads into his next four years at the nation’s helm.
During the 2012 elections, African-Americans accounted for 13% of all voters, a higher percentage than the 10% of Hispanics that voted, and well above the single-digit percentages many political pundits predicted for the group. With the thrill of helping elect the first African-American president behind them -- coupled with the slow improving economy and high unemployment -- many observers believed that African-Americans would not be as motivated to vote for a second Obama term.
But Washington Watch host Roland Martin said those prognosticators didn’t understand the intense feelings within the African-American community on a number of issues that were important to their lives and were only discussed on black-oriented media outlets.
“Black media played a critical role in crystallizing our core issues. Just like there are specific issues that resonated among Latinos, there are issues that are meaningful to African-Americans, and all too often they were marginalized and ignored,” said Martin, whose one-hour Sunday morning news/public affairs show is in its fourth season. “We understood what was happening the entire time.”
Satirical shows like Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and FX’s Totally BiasedWith W. Kamau Bell put a consistent comedic light on issues that, for the most part, were not heavily covered by the mainstream media.
Such shows also used humor to break down often complicated political issues like the country’s debt situation, or poked fun at otherwise controversial issues like Obama’s birth certificate.
“We’d love to think that there was some influence being made,” said Keegan-Michael Key, half of the starring tandem (with Jordan Peele) in sketch comedy Key & Peele, which Comedy Central renewed last month for a third season.
One of the show’s most popular reoccurring skits is Key’s impersonation of a calm and cool Obama interacting with Peele’s character – “Luther,” Obama’s “anger translator” -- as they discuss current political issues.
“People are hustling looking for work or are overworked and don’t have as much time to spend looking at issues and absorbing issues,” Key said. “We wanted to make it our jobs to look at the civics of the situation and then we’ll distill it as best we can. When you can distill things down like that it hopefully allows the populace to say ‘now that I understand, and that makes sense to me.”
The presence of African-American comics and journalists discussing these issues afforded them more credibility and influence with black viewers.
“Black people are looking for Black faces on television even in the 21st century, so I feel like my show is keeping Black issues out there, while also talking about other issues from a black perspective,” said W. Kamau Bell, host of Fx’s late night series Totally Biased, which satirizes political issues from an African American point of view.
The freshman series, which was given an additional 13 –episode order last month, averages about 28% African-American viewers -- more than double FX’s tally of 13%.
“The most effect I can hope to have is that it initiates the discussion in households and I think we can get better in initiating that conversation,” Bell said.
The shows will continue to focus on political issues and will criticism of the President when warranted, hosts said.
“The great thing about Obama being back in office is that we can now talk about the times when he’s not so great of a president,” Bell said. “There are some things that he’s done that have been great, but there are certainly other things that we can talk about. I don’t want Totally Biased to mean totally Democratic.”
T.J. Holmes, host of BET’s weekly late-night series Don’t Sleep!, which launched this past October, said that it’s just as important to keep African-Americans engaged and informed about what’s going on in the country politically now than it was before the election.
“We absolutely have to,” said Holmes. “We have to stay on it and keep viewers engaged, informed. We have an opportunity now over the next four years where we can reel them in because of President Obama, but we can keep them interested past President Obama.”