Cable Network Studies Audience

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Black Entertainment Television (BET) wanted to prove to advertisers and programmers that its mostly black audience was in fact diverse and far from monolithic. The network conducted an online survey of African-Americans. Matthew Barnhill, BET Research Director, shares what they discovered.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we look ahead to Black History Month, we begin with a look at black people today. Now, it may be common knowledge that African-Americans in this country are diverse, with a wide range of values and lifestyles and interests. But Black Entertainment Television, BET, set out to prove it. Last year, the cable network conducted a wide-ranging survey with the goal of wooing advertisers and programmers, especially those that may have shied away from BET, fearing that the mostly black audience was narrow in its taste. And they decided to make the findings public. So, BET's chief researcher, Matthew Barnhill, joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MATTHEW BARNHILL (Research Director, Black Entertainment Television): Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: I've heard this before from other black media who tell us that some times it's been hard to persuade advertisers that black people are interested in buying things other than cars and hair products. Is this still the case?

Mr. BARNHILL: Absolutely. Unfortunately, there are some organizations who may not necessarily be as diverse and they don't really understand the complexities of reaching various segments. So, if we look at the total spending power of the African-American audience, you're talking about $913 billion. And if you compare that to the GDPs of other countries, you will find that African-Americans actually have more spending power than countries like Australia and Saudi Arabia and Greece, etcetera. And so there really is a big opportunity there that unfortunately, you know, many organizations just aren't really tapping into.

MARTIN: And how do people spend that money?

Mr. BARNHILL: You know, African-American consumers are not necessarily different in terms of general (unintelligible) in sense of some of the things that, you know, they want in terms of affordable housing, you know, food, travel, education, etcetera. So, you know, there really are number of different categories that African-Americans spend on. We do tend to over-index on entertainment but, you know, for the most part you'll find that they're spending just on basic life needs.

MARTIN: I mean, some of the demographic profiles that you mentioned, I do have to say that I had questions. One is that couples raising children was the most common family setting reported, that 48 percent of your responders were couples raising children. But single-mother-headed households at 26 percent was the next, then kinship caregivers, I guess, that would mean, you know, an aunt or a grandmother at 22 percent and single fathers at four percent. Now, I have to say that the over-arching data collected by the government would indicate that that's not true. That single-female-headed households are a larger percentage of the community of African-American households than your data indicates. How do you explain that discrepancy?

Mr. BARNHILL: With a couple's piece though it's not necessarily assuming that the couples are married. What it assumes is that there was a male and a female together in a relationship who are raising their kids. They may not even necessarily live together. I believe with some of the government information, they actually use marriage as one of the requirements.

MARTIN: This is self-reported. This is if you

Mr. BARNHILL: Yes, this is self-reported.

MARTIN: see yourself

Mr. BARNHILL: exactly.

MARTIN: as a part of a couple raising children

Mr. BARNHILL: Correct.

MARTIN: then you are identified that way even if the government doesn't see it that way. Why do you think that's important?

Mr. BARNHILL: Well, I think it's important to help change the perspective of there are many men who are not involved in their kids' lives. And one of the things that we saw quite a bit of is that men definitely are playing parts in raising their kids and raising other young children.

MARTIN: But the other thing you say in the piece is that even though nearly 45 percent of black families have significant incomes, there's still a real sense that financial security remains a challenge for the majority. You say that 63 percent of families admit to being financially strapped, 27 percent reported they run out of money before their next paycheck comes and 36 percent feel they have just enough money to cover expenses with nothing extra to fall back on. What do you think that means?

Mr. BARNHILL: Well, one of the challenges in helping individuals feel comfortable is increasing their financial knowledge. What we also found was that while about 90 percent of African-Americans have a checking or savings account, about 80 percent say that they've learned everything they know financially from either their parents or based on their own research and their own learnings. So, there's a big gap there in terms of helping individuals really understand financial planning: how to save, how to invest. You know, there is a real lack of true knowledge to help boost that comfort level.

MARTIN: And another data point that may or may not be surprising to some people is the degree to which the African-Americans you surveyed had a very strong desire for their children to attend college.

Mr. BARNHILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You say that even those who had no more than a high school diploma or a GED, 66 percent of those respondents expressed a strong desire for their children to earn a college degree and that goal was highest among single mothers - 90 percent of single mothers and relatives raising children at 75 percent wanted their children earn a college degree. Was that surprising to you? Maybe not to you, but do you think

Mr. BARNHILL: No.

MARTIN: it you will be surprising to some people?

Mr. BARNHILL: Well, it may be surprising to some but we went into the homes of many families and almost universally we heard parents said that they really want their kids to do so much better than they did. And they really have high goals and many of them had sacrificed, you know, a lot financially. Many of them chose living in specific neighborhoods because of the school system, et cetera. So, there really was the strong hope or desire that they would go on to college.

MARTIN: So, Matthew, summing it up for me: Is this a good news story or bad news story? I mean, on the one hand you have more people than perhaps some might imagine who are earning decent incomes but you still have a lot of people feeling that they're financially strapped, you have a lot of people with the great desire for education but not necessarily the understanding of how to achieve it. How do you look at these findings overall?

Mr. BARNHILL: I actually think that it's a great news story. I think it shows opportunities where organizations and companies can really invest in the black community and help make a difference and develop some sort of brand loyalty from that outreach.

MARTIN: Matthew Barnhill is chief researcher for Black Entertainment Television, BET. He was kind enough for join us from our bureau in New York. If you're interested in reading the survey in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs and then on TELL ME MORE. Matthew, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. BARNHILL: Thank you very much.

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