This post is a reworking of one posted last week, changed to reflect answers to questions raised by a friend.
The original post responded to a recent Code Switch podcast which talked about how many current shows centered on the Black American experience have more than 50% non-Black viewers. I used these data to indulge in some hopeful speculations that white people are hungry for information about non-white experiences because we have been shaken awake by recent events. These speculations were not clearly supported.
The language in the Code Switch podcast, and in the Nielson data upon which it was based, suggested that this viewership pattern was either an important shift or contradicted existing perceptions. I couldn’t find any information about previous viewing patterns based on race, but did find reference to “pernicious and problematic stigmas attached to ‘black productions’—that they only appeal to black audiences and can’t be financially successful for studios” (Fusion, 2017).
So, the news in this story is that Black people aren’t the only people watching stories based on their experience. What is not commented on is that, with one exception, who watches these shows is still disproportionate with our demographics. Though we are currently 14% Black or Black and other, all but one of the shows listed in the Nielson report has 20% or higher Black viewership.
Missing information keeps me from unpacking the story that is nagging at me from inside this report. First is lack of detail on the “non-Black” viewers. Whiteness, with its self-perpetuating illusion of being the “normal” state, has very different implications than other racial identities. Second, I want to know if these numbers are changing. Specifically, I want to know if more whites are finding ways to connect with narratives by and about people of color than before. (That hope I had in my first version of this piece? I’m still hoping to find evidence of a trend.) Third, I want to know if anyone ever wrote about “white productions” in light of possible stigma that they might not appeal to non-white audiences, or if Nielsen ever reported on racial patterns for “white themed” shows. (My strong expectation is that they have not.)
The things I do notice in the data are that (1) Only one show (This Is Us) is watched by a disproportionately low percentage of Black people, making me wonder why, and (2) the shows with higher non-Black viewership seem to stay in white comfort zones, being set in cultures we are familiar with (Black-ish, HTGAWM). I wonder if shows with higher Black viewership, such as Empire or Star, are more firmly rooted in Black culture without bothering to translate for outsiders, and I notice that the recent release of James Baldwin’s challenge to white America, I am Not Your Negro, did not play at the local multiplex.
I had hoped the story in this news was that non-Black people were beginning to recognize stories centered in the Black experience as their (our) stories as well—valuable because they are centered in experiences they (we) cannot understand directly. Intellectual integrity keeps me from drawing this conclusion from these data. In the meantime, I am glad that at least the people to whom these stories belong are beginning to control the process and profit from sharing them. I bet they’d rather have that than our approval.