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The gap between the prime-time tastes of African-American and white TV viewers looks to be narrowing significantly for the first time since ad agencies began tracking the phenomenon a decade ago. The reason may be that there simply are fewer shows on prime time that appeal specifically to blacks.

"If you look at all regularly scheduled prime-time programs in the fourth quarter of 1991, the average black household rating was a 15.1 and the average white rating was 11.7," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-broadcast research at BJK&E Media Group, New York. "In 1992, it was a 14.9 for blacks and an 11.6 for whites. But [for the same period in '94], it was a 15 rating for blacks and a 13.3 rating among whites."

While the prime-time preferences of blacks and whites are still dramatically different-Fox's "Living Single" is No. 1 with blacks and ABC's "Home Improvement" is No. 1 with whites-Mr. Sternberg said the narrowing of the ratings gap shows there's more commonality in viewing choices. For example, he noted that last year, there were 16 prime-time shows that derived 25% or more of their audience from blacks. This season, only four shows had such concentrations.

The reason for the shift may have less to do with cultural homogeneity than with network scheduling tactics.

"Last season there were 14 shows with black casts or lead characters compared with 10 this year," Mr. Sternberg said. "Sitcoms with black casts traditionally have the widest rating disparity between blacks and whites. Last season there were 11, this season there are six."

The top five shows among blacks are "Living Single," Fox's "Martin" and "New York Undercover," NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and ABC's "Me & The Boys." In white households, those shows rank 95th, 96th, 98th, 77th and 27th, respectively.

Mr. Sternberg said the reduction in black-oriented prime-time network shows is probably due more to cyclical programming patterns than inherent bias in the ratings system.

Separately last October, a House subcommittee headed by Rep. Cardiss Collins (D., Ill.) began investigating allegations that biases against blacks in Nielsen Media Research's ratings system were contributing to lower ratings for black-oriented shows.

An industry task force recently reported significant progress toward alleviating those concerns.

Nielsen has increased its national ratings sample size from 4,000 to about 4,300 homes and will raise it to 5,000 by yearend. African-American households now represent about 452 Nielsen households in the sample, which is proportionate to the general population.

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