Despite becoming a cultural phenomenon at home, shows like Empire aren’t attracting the same number of viewers abroad, leading some to believe that the world just isn’t ready for African American stories outside of America. But it’s not that simple: the business of television is changing.
In foreign markets like Germany, Australia, Canada, and England—where you’d think the nighttime soapy goodness of Lee Daniels’ Lyon family should fall into a sweet spot with young viewers—it’s barely scraping by. From to The Hollywood Reporter:
“Having a diverse cast creates another hurdle for U.S. series trying to break through; it would be foolish not to recognize that,” says Marion Edwards, president of international TV at Fox. “We are telling our units that they need to be aware that by creating too much diversity in the leads in their show means … problems having their shows translating to the international market.”
The uptick in American TV cast diversity, Scott Roxborough writes, has coincided with the rise in international markets creating their own television shows and buying programs from local producers, meaning American television stations are losing previously reliable customers. Still, formulaic shows like NCIS and CSI are remain popular aboard with diverse actors at the helm. Oldies like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air also did well during their 1980s and 1990s heyday.
“Those shows and the success of the original Roots mini-series proved there is an interest in black stories abroad,” says Timothy Havens, a professor in African-American studies at the University of Iowa and author of Black Television Travels: African American Media around the Globe. “But the pattern we’ve seen, again and again, is that black shows break new ground that white shows benefit from. So Roots was followed by a number of white miniseries that were very successful abroad, Fresh Prince by white youth-oriented shows.”
More interestingly, Havens points out that shows like How to Get Away with Murder that star black leads but feature “non-ethnically specific kinds of stories” perform better internationally than the “specifically black stories” of Empire or Black-ish. In addition, as the golden age of U.S. television becomes more like a collection of really long mini-films, other countries aren’t really as invested; foreign viewers seem to prefer one-and-done shows like NCIS, where if you miss an episode you’re not completely lost.
Black culture is one of America’s most popular exports, so it’s curious that the more diverse TV becomes, the harder it is to sell abroad. But please don’t mistake this for a passport to the past, where most U.S. shows were led by white characters, buoyed sometimes by their black sidekick or best friend with no storyline. Nope, not going back.
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