NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- There's the Catch-22 of buying black media, but what about distributing it? Publicis-owned SMG Multicultural's first African American Content Alliance Forum, held yesterday at the Apollo Theater in New York, posed tough questions about the current state of black entertainment.
If buying ad time on black-owned networks such as BET and TV One guarantees a targeted audience, where are major marketers to turn for mainstream programming that includes black audiences? A lack of broadcast support for African-American entertainment and limited mainstream opportunities on cable have left marketers and producers alike left to determine new distribution models. Monica Gadsby, CEO of SMG Multicultural, asked: If a gospel show can air on BET, why can't a similar show air on Lifetime?
Few options for marketers
Since the 2006 merger of the WB and UPN formed the CW, broadcast TV has been left with only two shows targeted toward African-Americans, with predominantly black casts: the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris" and "The Game." TBS's Tyler Perry comedies "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns" are the highest-rated shows with black casts on any network, but cable TV on the whole has provided few additional options for advertisers looking to reach a broad cross-section of African-Americans. BET is deemed either too young or too racy for family-friendly advertisers, while TV One can be too niche.
The goal, Ms. Gadsby said, is for advertisers to start raising their hands during the upfront programming meetings with the TV networks and other content partners to ask where they can reach African-Americans on a dedicated basis. "We keep getting scripts with 'diverse casts,' but that's not enough," she said.
As her colleague Laura Carracioli-Davis, exec VP- Starcom Entertainment, put it, "Monica has all this money, but what is she going to spend it on?"
To that end, the African American Content Alliance Forum hosted a lineup of eight key producers and talent who gave 20-minute presentations on their new shows to an audience of senior-level agency and brand representatives for SMG Multicultural clients such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Disney and Burger King.
Who's who of black media
The lineup read like a who's who of black media. "Today" co-host Al Roker pitched a quartet of new reality series, including music series "Homemade Jamz" and an Emeril Lagasse cartoon, "Li'l Emeril!" Tyler Perry producer Debmar-Mercury plugged sponsorships for "The Wendy Williams Show," a syndicated talk show starring the outspoken radio host that will debut July 13. Gospel star Kirk Franklin offered up two new projects, "The Call," a scripted drama from his Fo Yo Soul Entertainment, and "Kirk Franklin Pop Up Jams," a music and book tour.
Almost none of the projects pitched had distribution deals lined up, a sign that brands need to be the ones who determine the shows' future business models. "Being able to walk in the door with brand support is what's going to get these shows off the ground," said Jordan Levin, co-founder of production studio Generate and former CEO of the WB. "To me, this is something consumers are looking for and brands are looking for, but the content gets bucketed very easily into traditional distribution models that restrain their ability to syndicate."
Two black-targeted shows Mr. Levin's Generate created in recent months, BET's "Somebodies" and Comedy Central's "Chocolate News," were recently canceled by their respective networks because of the troubling economics that go into producing African-American entertainment. The networks may overindex in the ratings among black demos by as much as 150%, but if shows are still losing a big chunk of their higher-rated lead-ins (in the case of "Chocolate News") or don't have the executive who greenlit the program around to champion a project with middling ratings (in the case of BET's former programming chief Reginald Hudlin and "Somebodies"), there's little initiative taken at the corporate level to justify the long-term economics of keeping the shows on air.
Broadening advertiser perceptions
SMG Multicultural's forum is the result of a two-year initiative the agency created called Beyond Demographics, which set out to broaden advertiser perceptions of African-Americans by dividing black consumers into 12 different demographic groups with labels such as devouts, buppies, backboners, nomads and activists. Many of the forum's participating producers used the Beyond Demographics terminology in their show pitches to illustrate which demographic subsets would be best-served by their programming.
Brian Terkelsen, exec VP-managing director of MediaVest's Connectivetissue, said he hopes the forum will get clients talking before the upfront season gets under way. "I want them tantalized before they're out bar-hopping in April and May," he said.