Black TV Viewership Mystery Deepens -
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Black TV Viewership Mystery Deepens

I have to say that I'm not the Girlfriendsnista that I once was. Monday nights I've been watching A&E and those hot Gotti boys.

Black Viewership Mystery Deepens
December 13, 2004
By John Consoli

Black women viewers are popping up in the oddest of places across the TV landscape, and sometimes missing from the very places they historically have been found (namely, UPN).

And it’s perplexing many executives in the industry, especially those at UPN. Making matters worse for the Viacom-owned network, though, is the growing pile of makegood obligations that have resulted from the drop in black female viewers (Mediaweek, Oct. 25). Media agency executives say UPN owes several million dollars in makegoods for the shortfalls in its Monday- and Tuesday-night sitcoms.

While UPN does not guarantee ratings based on ethnicity, black viewers make up such a large proportion of those sitcoms’ viewership that their disappearance has affected the net’s overall adults 18-34 and 18-49 guarantees.

UPN brought the matter to Nielsen Media Research in October when it first noticed the dropoff, but executives say they’ve gotten few answers. “We see some things that are troubling within the sample, but we don’t want to jump to conclusions,” said Dave Poltrack, executive vp, research and planning for CBS, who also oversees research for sister network UPN. “We have asked Nielsen for a lot of analysis on African American viewing patterns across all the networks, not just UPN. They have provided some things, but we are still waiting for further response.”

Matt Tatham, senior communications analyst for Nielsen, which like Mediaweek, is owned by VNU, said a comparison of October 2004 to October 2003 data showed that black viewers increased on other broadcast networks on Monday and Tuesday nights when they decreased on UPN. “It seems like it could be just a change in viewing patterns,” said Tatham.

He also said that while black viewers as a group traditionally have watched more TV than white viewers, TV usage among black viewers has declined over the past few years. “Right now we do not have a definitive answer for UPN, but we are continuing to work on it,” Tatham said.

Although UPN is the network most affected, one Viacom exec, who did not want to speak for attribution, said, “This situation doesn’t seem to be confined to just UPN, and not just confined to prime time. How broad it is, we don’t know, but it does affect other networks and other dayparts.”

Media agency MPG, which is doing some numbers crunching of its own, has isolated a few examples of how it is impacting other networks. Boon Yap, television insights manager at MPG, said ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids, which has been one of the most-watched shows among blacks since it premiered three years ago, is down a whopping 67 percent among black women 18-34, October to October.

On the WB, ratings for Steve Harvey’s Big Time are down 25 percent among black women 18-34; and on NBC, Law & Order is down 17 percent in the demo and Will & Grace is down 16 percent. On the WB, One Tree Hill is down 6 percent among black women 18-34, but up 82 percent among all women 18-34.

And, most perplexing of all, while UPN’s two Tuesday 8-9 p.m. sitcoms, All of Us and Eve, are down double-digit percentages among black women 18-34, the WB’s Gilmore Girls, not historically a popular show among black audiences, is up 19 percent among black women 18-34.

Even more bizarre, ratings for black women 18-34 watching UPN sci-fi drama Enterprise—not traditionally a popular show among blacks—is up 8 percent season-to-date.

Outside of prime time, another oddity is that one of the shows recording the largest percentage loss of black women 18-34 is the Kids WB cartoon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, down 68 percent. And with each of the Big Three nets showing double-digit declines among female soap opera viewers, part of that is attributable to a 6 percent decline among black women 18-49.

Nor is the problem confined to broadcast networks. BET, which is also owned by UPN parent Viacom, is showing hefty season-to-date ratings declines. BET is down 14 percent in total viewers, down 25 percent in adults 18-34 ratings, 20 percent among women 18-34 and 25 percent among women 18-49.

“Something is going on among African American viewers, but what it is is not clear to us,” MPG’s Yap said. “It is clear that all networks are being impacted in some regard, but there is no clear pattern. We’re baffled.”

One possible answer might involve “fault rates,” which have been particularly high among black, Hispanic and large households (five or more people), in the newer local people meter panels. For example, it takes only one person in a five-member household to not punch in to the system for Nielsen to exclude all data from that household, leading to a fault.

Since early summer, Nielsen has been adding local people meter homes to the previous national sample of 5,100. LPM homes have been added in Boston (600), Los Angeles (800), Chicago (800) and most recently New York (800), which was just added last week.

Many broadcasters—especially those that own networks—and station groups are concerned about the addition of LPM homes at a time when questions remain about Nielsen’s ability to adequately field people meters in local markets. Nielsen only has full accreditation for its LPMs in Boston. In L.A., Chicago and New York, Nielsen only has “conditional accreditation” from the Media Rating Council.

Among the things the MRC wants Nielsen to correct by the end of the year, in particular, are fault rates. Right now, whatever fault-rate problems exist with the LPMs in those markets are being transferred to the national sample. —with Katy Bachman
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