IN A TYPICAL week, ABC's "Home Improvement," about the host of
a household fix-it show, is the most-watched program on television.
Yet one group of viewers is decidedly sparse among the masses
of "Home Improvement" fans. In African-American households, the
program barely makes the top 30. Other big network hits are even
less popular: "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" don't even crack the top 90
with blacks despite consistently finishing in the top 10 for
viewers as a whole. The top show for black audiences this season:
"Living Single," a Fox sitcom that ranks 69th among all audiences.
Network executives, as well as advertisers and their agencies,
have known for years that blacks and whites have different viewing
tastes. But as the relative popularity of "Home Improvement" and
"Living Single" illustrate, these once-small differences have begun
to widen into a vast chasm during prime time viewing hours.
During the 1985-86 season, for example, 15 of the 20 shows most
popular among blacks were also top 20 shows among all viewers. By
last season, only three programs among the top 20 had "crossover"
appeal among both black- and non-black households - ABC's Monday
Night Football, NBC's Monday Night Movies and the comedy "Fresh
Prince of Bel Air," also on NBC.
To some, the racial trends among prime time audiences are a
natural result of a positive trend: the increasing number of
network programs created by, for or about blacks. According to BBDO
Worldwide Inc., a major New York ad agency, there were 25 programs
on the four networks with black performers in starring or major
roles last year, up from 16 just two years earlier.
"TV was pretty much a white medium for so many years; it was
hard to find many black faces," said Doug Alligood, the BBDO vice
president who conducted the agency's study. "This is a celebration
of diversity, and it's wonderful."
To others, however, the fragmenting of the audience by race is
evidence of increasing cultural separateness.
"Our society, in general, has become more polarized, and this
is just another indication of it," said Jannette Dates, acting dean
of the school of communications at Howard University and co-editor
of a book about media portrayals of African Americans.
"Part of it is the general trend of race relations in this
country," said Robert Johnson, chief executive of the Black
Entertainment Television Network, which has become a national cable
network by targeting black audiences. …