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Understanding the Importance of TV Among Black Families

4 minute read | February 2021

TV news is and has always been a staple part of our media diets. Our collective interest in news heightened last year amid the trifecta of the pandemic, rising social unrest and the U.S. presidential election, and continued this year as protests took over Washington, D.C., in early January. While primetime news engagement was notably high on Jan. 6, viewership included an unlikely demographic: Black children ages 2-17.

No one could fault children for gravitating to kids programming on the day or the riots, but a recent analysis of TV viewership among kids 2-17 found that 40% of Black children were tuned into cable news instead of something more expected for their age group. Comparatively, 90% of all children 2-17 did just that: watch kids programming.

The behavior speaks to the unique way in which Black families are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial injustice. Family is critical in the Black community, and without the ability to gather and socialize in the traditional ways, such as through family meals, worship services and visits to the salon, television has taken on a deeper meaning, especially when it comes to celebrating Black culture and Black identity.

While television means more to Americans than entertainment, the sentiment is particularly relevant for Black families, who are readily engaging with TV as a source of information at a time of spiraling crises around racial tolerance, justice and equity. And compared with all children, Black children are spending more of their time engaged right alongside their parents. Rather than shielding their children from this content, Black parents are watching with their young, allowing the news to serve as a catalyst for family conversation. And when the recent riots were taking place during the week of Jan. 6, four of the 10 cable programs that Black children viewed were news programs. 

The importance of news among Black households is a clear factor driving engagement among all ages, but there are other factors as well. One-third of Black households are home to kids under 18, and 5% are multigenerational. Both of these factors embed an additional level of influence and support into Black homes with kids. It also encourages an abundance of co-viewing among family members. 

Given the high percentage of Black households with children, it should come as no surprise that there is a growing appetite for new and fresh content, especially with much of our lives, including school, taking place at home. So while broadcast and cable are prominent in Black homes, their content offerings don’t always offer what African Americans are looking for. 

Importantly, Black families are finding more of their favorite content from virtual cable and video on-demand services, as these platforms often provide a curated balance of network programming from familiar services. And while TV has significant reach, Nielsen has found that the technology people have in their home has the greatest influence on what people watch. 

A year into the pandemic, we’ve seen some of the largest gains in the reach of internet-connected devices among Black Americans, and usage within these families continues to grow. At the height of lockdowns last year (Q2 2020), internet-connected device penetration among Black households increased by 8%. More notably, African Americans spent the most time with these devices than any other demographic group. And today, 17% of Black families that report having access to an SVOD service actually have combined access to at least four major SVOD providers.

Black Americans looking for diverse stories on TV find SVOD programming delivers more than the traditional networks. They are seeing more of themselves in representative content across different genres and story arcs. Think Netflix’s recent hit, Bridgerton—where else can you watch Black characters in Regency England?

For additional insights, download our recent The New Black Family Culture: Navigating Culture Through Content report.

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