In Hollywood, executives are notoriously reluctant to admit that they’re on the lookout for viewers of color. For some reason, it seems to be conventional wisdom that, say, the kind of content that African-American audiences are looking for overlaps in no way with anything any white viewer might be engaged by, ever. And so expressing a wish for a black, Latino, or Asian audience is apparently to express a wish to make a niche product.
So there’s something really refreshing about seeing MSNBC president Phil Griffin tout the fact that his network, which was already number one in cable news for African-American viewers, grew their African-American viewership in 2012 by 60 percent, in a year when CNN’s grew 23.7 percent and Fox’s declined by the same number.
“I think we made a commitment, we decided, that in order for this channel to succeed, that we had to reflect the country. This meant that we had to be part of the country in ways that the other channels weren’t,” he told Mediaite. “People want to know that we reflect their world. And it’s not just a single show – its across the board. You look at the guests every hour and we make sure that we have women, African Americans, everything, and I think to spend a day watching MSNBC is to see America as we have seen it.”
It’s not just a relief to hear Griffin say this—it’s smart strategy. I don’t know why it’s surprising to anyone that as a nerdy lady, I enjoy seeing a reflection of that identity in Rachel Maddow when she’s on the air, rather than needing the news delivered to me by an authoritative white dude my father’s age. And I’m not sure why it’s surprising either that people might like to see an African-American woman like Melissa Harris-Perry lead discussions of, among other issues, race, because we’re interested in the particular perspectives she brings to the table that we don’t happen to possess on our own. Enjoying seeing myself on screen, and enjoying the insights and experiences of people who are not like me, and whose perspectives I can’t magically situate myself into are not actually mutually exclusive impulses.
When I asked NBC executives whether, in addition to encouraging the creators of the shows they’d ordered to make sure their casts were diverse, they had internal targets they wanted to reach for the percentages of their staffs and for their viewerships, NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke side-stepped the question to focus instead on the kind of show they’d like to have on the network.
“I think we really would love to have a diverse family show,” she said, explaining that in the past, “In family shows based on people’s experiences and it’s their it’s a white couple and they tend to have the white children, and you end up having to cast a diverse kind of secondary character to shoehorn in. I think we would love, and we have some good prospects for this year, to have a Cosby, have a diverse family show where we’re trying to find a role for a white person on it.”
I think that’s a great goal. But I would love to see more executives like Griffin who are comfortable coming out and saying they want to grow their audiences of color as part of their overall audience development strategy, and that they’re programming with that in mind. We really ought to be at a point where saying you want non-white people to watch your network shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that you don’t want a white audience, too. If we can come together around Will Smith and Dwayne Johnson, the world of entertainment really ought to be smart enough to dream up some other points of common interest, and to matter-of-factly market them to all of us.