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Living for the City - Broadcasting & Cable

Living for the City

Syndication execs find that in order to shape talk show winners, you need to court the urban African-American vote
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Pundits and politicians who wondered how big a force the African-American vote would be in the 2012 presidential election received their answer at the polls: a significant 13% of U.S. voters were African-American. Another 10% were Latino, making up nearly a quarter of the entire voting population. Though some predicted indifference, the support and commitment among people of color actually helped spell the difference in a contest decided by percentage points.

Syndication execs already hold truths about African-American viewer support to be self-evident, and they're getting more important all the time.

"These are new days. The difference between a success and a failure could be three-tenths of a ratings point," says Byron Allen, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios, which produces all of its shows with an eye toward minority demographics. "There's a big difference between a 1.1 and a 1.4. Quite often you will find that extra half of a ratings point with the appeal of a crossover host and a strong African-American and Hispanic connection. Those are both very important demographics as it relates to daytime television, and, as we recently saw, with the election."

African-American viewers continue to be a decisive force in daytime, and syndicators are paying ever-closer attention, with demonstrable results. Two of this season's biggest success stories involve African-American stars: Steve Harvey and Live!'s new co-host Michael Strahan. And elevated expectations are greeting next year's shows hosted by Queen Latifah and Arsenio Hall.

"As you start to look at where the audience is and where it will be, you have to take into account the demographic changes that are happening in our country. That seems to have been underscored by the election," says Bill Carroll, vice president, director of programming, Katz Television Group. "To stay in the game you need to take into account the demographic composition of the audience. That's just good planning."

With African-American audiences composing nearly 30% of daytime's key female 25-54 audience, it makes sense for syndicators to cast relatable hosts, which explains, in part, syndicators' support of talent such as Harvey, Hall, Latifah and Strahan. And the African-American demo is growing, up 4% from a decade ago. Latinos in that demographic also are up slightly, to 9% today from 8% a decade ago.

"We study those daytime demographics closely when developing our shows," says Allen. "When we select our talent, we look for strong African-American and Hispanic appeal and for cross-over appeal at the same time."


1119 Cover story syndie chart

Strength in Numbers

African-Americans make up 13.6% of the total U.S. population of nearly 309 million people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Latinos comprise 16% of that population, and account for more than half of the country's total population growth over the past decade. (As a side note, Asians have been the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States since 2009, totaling 6% -- or 18.2 million -- of the total U.S. population, according to census figures.)

While both African-Americans and Latinos make up big demographic chunks in today's TV world, a significant percentage of Latinos still turn to Spanish-language television for much of their viewing. That's expected to shift to some degree as more young Latinos grow up with English as their native language; for now, however, African-Americans make up the larger English-language viewing population by comparison.

Both matter a great deal in the syndication wheelhouse that is daytime TV. "African-American and Latino audiences are important overall but especially in daytime," says Allen.

And daytime success is a tough nut to crack. If it were that simple, phrases such as "The next Oprah" and "Daytime's new best friend" wouldn't need to be tagged to one would-be host after another like election billboard slogans.

Of the daytime audience, only 21% earn more than $75,000 per year, according to Nielsen; 13% earn more than $100,000 annually. Also, 19% work at blue-collar jobs and 13% are professional or managerial. But most pointedly, a huge 59% of it is unemployed - either by choice or inability to find work - or retired. Clearly, this is an audience in need of a good, understanding ear.

And they're finding it; that's especially true for African-American daytime viewers. The viewing audiences for many first-run syndicated shows have more African-Americans than any other ethnic group. Nearly 60% of the audience for Debmar-Mercury's Wendy Williams are African-Americans in the key female demos. While the show ranks near the bottom of the syndicated talk show list in households, it is also one of syndication's youngest shows, with a median age of 49.2.

The success of NBCUniversal's conflict talker, Maury, is based in large part on the loyalty of its young African-American fans. (Conflict talkers, in general, measure well among urban audiences.) Maury is syndication's highest-rated show among African-American women age 18-34, and the second highest among black women age 18-49, behind only Debmar-Mercury's Family Feud. It also rates third highest among African-American women 25-54, behind CBS Television Distribution's Judge Judy and Feud, according to Nielsen Media Research. Maury also is the fourth youngest show in syndication, with a median age of 48.5. Only CTD's Excused, Twentieth's Dish Nation and Warner Bros.' TMZ skew younger.

Among viewers in daytime, NBCUniversal's Trisha follows Wendy Williams in the numbers, with a female 25-54 audience composed of 52% African-Americans; for NBCU's Jerry Springer that number stands at 50%; NBCU's Maury has 49% and Debmar-Mercury's Jeremy Kyle is also at 49%.

Besides Wendy, the other entertainment talker in the bunch is NBCUniversal's new Steve Harvey, whose female 25-54 audience is 50% African-American. Harvey's other syndicated show, Debmar-Mercury's Family Feud, also skews heavily: 43% of its female 25-54 audience is African-American.

Meanwhile, the highest Latino-skewing first-run programs in syndication are Entertainment Studios' three court shows: Justice for All with Cristina Perez, We the People with Gloria Allred and America's Court with Judge Ross.  Among women 25-54, Latinos comprise 18%, 16% and 15%, respectively, of the audiences for those three shows. The series are also relatively popular among black viewers, who comprise 37% and 27%, respectively, of America's Court's and Justice for All's female 25-54 audience.

That success is telling -- and motivating for execs -- but ultimately, crossover appeal is the key to producing a successful daytime show, says one syndication executive.

"If you design programming just to appeal to African-Americans, you will reach a certain level but you won't surpass it," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that strategy, but it's hard to create a broad hit based on it."

That's why Fox, The WB and UPN -- and the latter two networks combined in 2006 to become The CW -- all dropped their strategies of programming black sitcoms in primetime. The shows remained popular among African-American audiences -- when BET picked up The CW's cancelled sitcom The Game, its January 2011 premiere to 7.7 million people marked cable's best sitcom premiere ever -- but their niche appeal made them economically unsustainable for the broader-based broadcast networks.

A New Challenger

Growing its audience is the challenge that Steve Harvey now faces. Half of that show's audience is black, and in order for it to grow, it needs to find fans among other demographics. But the affable Harvey's been there before: His other show, Family Feud, has been moved into much better time periods in most of the country and has grown 60% since he took over as host in 2010.

"What was important about Steve is that he's talented and funny and he has a following," says Lonnie Burstein, Debmar-Mercury's executive vice president, programming and production. "We have enormous numbers among black viewers for Feud, but we also still have a good game show that people like whether they are white or black."

That crossover quality -- urban appeal notwithstanding -- is a huge plus factor for daytime hosts. Live!'s producers chose Strahan because of his on-air ease and chemistry with co-host Kelly Ripa; that he also appeals to African-American viewers is an added bonus. And Debmar-Mercury wanted to do a talk show with Wendy Williams because she had the ability to hold New York City in her thrall for five hours a day as a drive-time radio host.

"When we were developing the show, we sat in her studio for three days listening to her," says Burstein. "I think most talk radio is awful, so it was shocking to see how good she was."

"Ultimately for any of these shows to be a success, they need to have the broadest possible audience and that's the bottom line," says Carroll.

JudgeJudy, like CTD's Oprah before her, is a perfect example of crossover appeal. Court shows, in general, rate well with urban audiences, which is one reason there are so many of them on the air. Judy, the genre's top-rated show by far, has an audience that is 28% African-American and 7% Latino among women 25-54. In terms of audience composition Judy has one of the smaller African-American audiences.

"Certainly black audiences enjoy watching black talent, but that can't be the only thing the talent brings to the table," says Burstein.

That's why Warner Bros.' has high hopes for Bethenny, starring Real Housewife and Skinnygirl Bethenny Frankel, which was sold to Fox owned stations in 17 markets for a fall 2013 debut.

The blunt-speaking Frankel is white, but in last summer's test, the show improved ratings by 71%, 133% and 100% among black women age 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54, respectively. And the show positively exploded among Hispanics, bumping time periods 900% among Latino women 18-34, 700% among Latino women 18-49 and 167% among Latino women 25-54.

Attracting any one audience is clearly helpful, but it's not always essential.

Warner Bros.' Ellen, which is having its best ratings year ever, has daytime's lowest percentage of African-American viewers, with only 14% of its female audience composed of African-Americans. That said, a greater ethnic appeal would be helpful to shows such as Disney-ABC's Katie, which skews both very white and very old. The show gathers syndication's largest audience among the rookies, including Steve Harvey, but it's underperforming both its year-ago time periods and its lead-ins.

One thing everyone can agree on is this: shows just need to be "good" -- fun, exciting, interesting, worth a viewer's time -- in order to succeed. Demographic appeal may be vital but you'll never rate well unless you give the people what they want and let them vote on it.

Says Burstein, "Good trumps all."

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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