In Living Color: Diversifying TV Is Good for Advertisers

Media and Marketers Find Adjusting to New Face of America Is Good for the Bottom Line

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Fox's 'Empire' is a runaway hit.
Fox's 'Empire' is a runaway hit. Credit: Chuck Hodes/Fox

Diversifying the face of TV is not only the decent thing to do, but as broadcasters have discovered, it's also good for business in a rapidly evolving America. Conscious efforts made by TV networks over the past year to be more inclusive in their programming have drawn big audiences and happy advertisers.

"Our advertisers love it," said Paul Lee, president, ABC Entertainment Group. "The demographic changes in America are just as important and vital as the technology changes."

So, too, has the mind-set changed about how these shows are perceived. "I am sick of the word 'diverse'… Our kids don't think about words like 'diverse,'" said NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, who said instead it's all "just mainstream."

Consider these new shows: The first Asian-American-centered comedy on broadcast in two decades, ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat;" more than a handful of series that star African-American leads like Fox's "Empire" and ABC's "Black-ish;" and The CW's Golden Globe-winning series "Jane the Virgin," which is based on a telenovela.

"This is not just a nice thing to do or the right thing to do, it is a business imperative," said Joe Earley, chief operating officer, Fox TV Group.

These successes have opened the floodgates for the 2015-16 season to be a melting pot of sorts, with a plethora of shows in development that portray a variety of ethnicities, like "The Curse of the Fuentes Women" and "Warrior" for NBC and "Doubt" for CBS.

"Diversity is more than an afterthought," said CBS Entertainment Chief Nina Tassler. "When we pick up a pilot, the creative has to be there, but we have conversations about how many opportunities we can have to make the show more multicultural."

It's not that broadcasters previously weren't thinking about how to be more culturally cognizant, but their eagerness for projects with multicultural leads and plot lines has amplified due to the mainstream acceptance of such programming.

Fox's freshman hip-hop drama "Empire" posted growth every week since it launched in January, while ABC's "Black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" were two of the most popular new comedies.

Ms. Salke attributes part of broadcast TV's ratings issues to the fact that "we didn't move forward more rapidly with what people wanted to see."

TV networks are, in part, now taking a cue from brand marketers who over the past several years have realized that to sell products they need to create ads that reflect what American consumers actually look like.

Commercials like the Cheerios spot that featured a mixed-race family, for example, are leading where the entertainment industry is going, Mr. Earley said.

In turn, the influx in opportunities to reach multicultural audiences on broadcast TV is evolving the way marketers are thinking about messaging to both the general market and multicultural audiences, and broadening the job of multicultural agencies.

Advertisers on the hunt to reach multicultural audiences are considering language and content agnostically, said Brett Dennis, chief media communications officer at Conill, the Hispanic shop owned by Saatchi & Saatchi, Cheerios' agency.

They are also taking a more holistic view of media budgets. "More money is flowing in and out of general entertainment and multicultural budgets," Mr. Dennis said. "They are increasingly being looked at as one big budget."

While multicultural budgets aren't expected to disappear, Starcom MediaVest Group's Esther Franklin, who heads SMG Americas experience strategy, said they are no longer trapped in silos.

As a result, the role of the multicultural agency is evolving. "Increasingly we are evaluating English-language programming and how it is delivering a multicultural audience," Mr. Dennis said. "In the past it was more about in-language insight, but now we are providing more insight on English-language."

But as advertisers increasingly assess general entertainment programming to tap multicultural audiences that were once predominantly relegated to niche channels like BET and NBC Universal-owned Telemundo, there's some mounting concern among in-language programmers.

"The people in-language need to make sure more than ever that the in-language market isn't cannibalized," said Judy Kenny, exec VP–sales and marketing, Estrella TV, a Spanish-language channel. "It is really important for us to communicate to the industry why in-language is important."

BET sees the burgeoning multicultural mainstream as an opportunity. "We are enamored with what's happening in the marketplace and proud the market is finally waking up to the value of this audience," said Vicky Free, chief marketing officer, BET. "It's making the advertising and creative community acknowledge the power of this market," she said. "We welcome the competition."

For advertisers, these shows are not yet seen as a replacement for networks like Univision or Telemundo. Univision, in fact, regularly beats English-language networks in cities with big Hispanic populations.

"It's in complement to," said Isabella Sanchez, VP–media integration at Hispanic shop Zubi Advertising. "If you are trying to reach the Hispanic audience, these shows are a great complement, but still reach a low percentage of the demo."

Ultimately it still all comes down to ratings. As long as TV networks and advertisers see green, viewers will continue to get TV shows that reflect a rainbow.

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