UPN’s Year-Round Appeal
February is not the only month for black-themed programs
By Kevin Downey -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/6/2005 7:00:00 PM
Considering that UPN accounts for the vast majority of the highest-rated shows among African-Americans—and nearly two-thirds of its prime time programs are led by black performers—it would seem logical that the network would go all out for Black History Month in February. But since UPN celebrates the African-American experience year-round, its approach to February is rather subdued.
Most weeks, six of UPN’s 10 prime time hours consist of shows starring African-Americans; some of the shows were also created by blacks. In February, the network’s programs will not feature storylines specific to the month. And the network isn’t rolling out any specials to celebrate the achievements of African-Americans.
However, UPN will air interstitials—public-service announcements—throughout the month. UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff says the vignettes “will feature our prime time talent honoring prominent African-Americans who have distinguished themselves in everything from politics to entertainment to sports.” UPN stars like Taye Diggs, of the rookie drama Kevin Hill; Golden Brooks, from the long-running sitcom Girlfriends; and Kristen Bell, of Veronica Mars, will help honor the achievements of late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, golfer Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey, who is being inducted into the NAACP Image Hall of Fame.
UPN thinks its approach to Black History Month is a respectful nod to African-Americans, rather than an over-the-top one.
“BLESSED TO TELL OUR STORIES”
Mara Brock Akil, creator and executive producer of Girlfriends (now in its fifth season and also in syndication), says UPN doesn’t have to go out of its way to celebrate the achievements of African-Americans in February because it is already doing that year-round.
“I feel that, every Monday the show airs, we’re celebrating Black History Month,” she says. “The beauty of what we get to do is that it’s not just about the month. I think Black History Month is still necessary to remind people of the stories of African-American people. But we’re blessed to be able to tell our stories [every week].”
TRICKY DEMO SHIFT
UPN’s lineup of ethnically diverse programs continues to generate respectable ratings. So far this season, Nielsens are holding steady even as the network streamlines its focus on young adults, chiefly women 18-34, and away from the multiple demographic groups that it had chased for years.
Instead of catering to black audiences one night, men on another and older demos in other timeslots, UPN has kept its focus on women 18-34 for its rating core; the network is up 13% in that demo from a year ago. Moreover, UPN remains the dominant network when it comes to attracting an African-American audience. In the fourth quarter of 2004, UPN accounted for eight of the 10 highest-rated shows watched by black viewers in the 18-49 demographic. Among these shows were all of those on UPN’s Monday lineup, including Girlfriends, the No. 1-ranked program in the demo.
Perhaps more impressively, UPN has been able to hold onto its ratings as the network establishes hits outside of wrestling on Thursdays and its long-running Monday sitcom block, the highest-rated night of programming among African-Americans.
The network has generated some of its best ratings—and certainly the most buzz it has had in years—with Tyra Banks’ Wednesday-night reality show, America’s Next Top Model. The fourth generation of the series premieres March 2. The third version ranked fourth among blacks 18-49 in the fourth quarter.
UPN has also broadened its focus beyond sitcoms with Kevin Hill, a rare drama starring an African-American. The show was picked up for the entire season last November.
“They’ve had some good critical acclaim with Kevin Hill and also with Veronica Mars, but neither show has done very well in the ratings,” says John Spiropoulos, partner and associate research director at MindShare.
STILL A STRUGGLE
“They are still struggling to find their audience,” Spiropoulos says. “They have to go after people who are most likely to watch and who have the highest price on their head, which is young women.”
More recently, the reality show The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott has pulled in modest ratings as a lead-in to Kevin Hill.
And as Girlfriends’ Akil says, while several UPN shows focus on African-Americans, the shows’ viewers are increasingly multiethnic.
“We’re gaining a more diverse audience, but clearly our core audience—and the one we respect and appreciate—is African-American women and African-American households,” she says. “UPN has been able to build and sustain a network, and throughout history, a lot of young networks have been built on ethnic programming. The fact that we’re still here putting on good programming about African-Americans gives us hope.”
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