Television Networks Love Our Ratings Power, But They Don’t Love Us

by Inda Lauryn

In Marlon Riggs’ documentary Color Adjustment, Daphne Maxwell Reid recalls the excitement of anticipating black faces on television in the 1960s. She remembers that her mother and other members of the family who thought twice about long distance phone calls in instances of emergencies would not hesitate to call each other to announce that a black person would be on television that night.

While we no longer have to make long distance calls to alert our friends and family about black faces on television, the excitement of seeing black people on television has not died down in the nearly 60 years since we only had representation in Amos and Andy and The Nat King Cole Show. We now have social media—particularly Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook—to connect with each other as we anticipate our favorite shows and events.

Personally, I have become increasingly attached to the phenomenon of live tweeting. While I sometimes live tweet films on my own time, I love the communal live tweets that come with watching a show as it first airs. I once commented that live tweeting is an acceptable form of talking back to the television, so it’s nice to hear us all “shouting” at the same time and building a community around TV and pop culture.

However, I am not the only one who has noticed the impact of social media in gauging the success of a TV show. The television industry is becoming increasingly savvy about creating a symbiotic relationship with social media and audiences, particularly Twitter. The networks have gotten smart about targeting and even baiting Twitter demographics—especially black women, even if their networks are not fully vested in centering complicated, diverse stories.

While this may be problematic, many black women still find live tweeting fun and cathartic. I personally enjoy connecting with others over TV shows, which often lead to conversations about other topics as well. When I live tweet, I express my frustration with shows, as well as my delight. And not only can I see what my friends think of the shows we watch together, but I also discover new shows through the online discussions that take place.

However, I have also found that I must be liberate with what shows I give my time and attention to. I know that many black women live tweet so-called “trash” reality shows because they need the catharsis that it offers, even when they metaphorically boo the content. I understand this. Yet I still have second thoughts about what I live tweet because those hashtags tell the industry executives the one thing they really care about: we are still watching.

For example, FOX has tapped in to this demographic with shows such as Sleepy Hollow, Gotham, and Empire—all of which have prominent black women characters. However, with Sleepy Hollow and Gotham, the leading black female characters appear to have had their roles diminished once they drew in audiences. This has been especially evident with Sleepy Hollow, as fans have publicly lamented the treatment of lead character Abbie Mills (played by Black actress Nicole Beharie), who has been cast aside for white supporting character Katrina Crane.

What makes Sleepy Hollow troublesome in this aspect is that the show’s creators and writers have had access to fan reactions via Twitter and Tumblr for more than a season. They must be aware that they took away the very thing that made the show work, but have continued to disregard black women’s critiques, because they feel Nicole Beharie’s limited presence is still enough to draw us in. The show’s decline in ratings, and the fact that many fans have jumped ship from Sleepy Hollow to other shows seems to have finally gotten a response from the writers, but the damage has already been done. Why support shows that don’t want to center the experiences of women of color, when there are plenty that do? The oft-struggling CW network has found a hit in Jane the Virgin, which not only a features woman of color in the lead role, but has made a complex portrayal of her Latina culture and identity a positive and refreshing primetime TV experience.

Networks only have a vested interest in representing black women on screen when we provide them with numbers. They don’t take into consideration that they must continue to represent us and tell our stories, if they expect us to keep tuning in. As the writers of Sleepy Hollow demonstrated, black women viewers are valued for the ratings they provide, but they have no real interest in centering a black woman in their narrative. Black women get dismissed as a “few unhappy fans” without recognition that we sometimes provide the base of a fandom.

This is when we find ourselves in a dilemma. I have continued to watch Sleepy Hollow, even though I have become extremely disappointed with its trajectory. I announce that disappointment during every live tweet. However, it is possible that I am only yelling into the void; the network knows me and other women will continue to watch despite our disappointment, because we’re still hopeful the storylines may improve. Why change the show when they know I’ll watch anyway? Considering a look at the synopsis for the Sleepy Hollow season finale that sees Beharie’s character mistaken for a runaway slave, I seriously doubt the current writer’s room has any regard for its black female fan base.

While the four major networks are not the only ones guilty of trying to draw in black female viewers with trending hashtags and false promises of representing our stories in an empowering way. The cable and online outlets have also begun to use this method to engage with audiences and spike ratings. Cable networks like VH1, OWN, and Lifetime have become the most obvious of this strategy, with Lifetime being the most brazen. The network has released biopics for beloved singers Aaliyah and Whitney Houston, despite anticipated controversy and initial pushback. Of course, Lifetime does not always rely upon controversy to draw in an audience, even when it’s obvious that they’ve begun to bait black women to increase their ratings. The all-black remake of Steel Magnolias and Nzingha Stewart’s With This Ring attracted black female audiences without using controversy to get us to watch.

We have to make an effort to communicate with networks on social media since we know they’re watching. We cannot continue to let them pull the bait-and-switch with black viewers, by tricking us into thinking black female characters will have larger roles in the shows they’re featured in. As we’ve proven time and time again, black women hold an immense amount of consumer power.

We have to let these networks know: We’re watching you… in more ways than one.

Photo: Nicole Beharie in FOX's Sleepy Hollow

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects and occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press.

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