An increasingly diverse Black America wants more nuance in media representation

A memorable line from an old activist anthem warned that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But as it turns out, there’s a major culture shift happening on the other side of the screen.

Black audiences spend about 12 hours more time with media each week than the general population, according to a recently released Nielsen study, with the biggest portion of their time spent on TV. And while the pervasiveness of modern media is well-documented, Nielsen’s research revealed that Black audiences deliver the highest engagement.

Perhaps the most significant finding of all? There are bigger things to come regarding the potential influence of Black audiences. The African-born U.S. population tripled in the past 20 years. And migration data suggests that Black immigrants will account for one-third of the U.S. Black population growth through 2060, ushering a new array of ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds.

A February 2024 research study from Nielsen, The global Black audience: shaping the future of media, explored this increasingly influential demographic.

The findings ultimately deliver a message to marketers, with Nielsen noting that “content will need to continue evolving to stay relevant for this media-hungry audience.”

Nielsen’s new report reverberated with The Geena Davis Institute, another top global research-based organization. The Institute provides research, direct guidance and thought leadership on increasing representation across gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age, and body type.

Some key findings:

  • While Black talent has never been more visible on TV — and well above parity — audience demand suggests there’s room for even more when it comes to how they are represented. In fact, Nielsen’s 2023 Black Diaspora Study found that the desire for more inclusion on TV was higher among Black audiences than any other identity group. 43% of Black respondents across five countries want more representation of their identity group on TV.
  • In total, Black viewers spend almost 55 percent of their media time with TV: live programming, time-shifted viewing and content they access through TV-connected (CTV) devices. Among audiences 65 and older, TV accounts for almost 68 percent of all media use.
  • While representing Black America is already complex, 16 percent of the Black population is expected to be foreign-born by 2060. That means that content will need to continue evolving to stay relevant for this increasingly diverse audience.
  • Black audiences also feel that they could be better represented in the advertising targeted towards them. In the United States alone, 67% of Black audiences agree that they wish they saw more representation of their identity group while watching TV. The demand is also high in other countries, based on Nielsen’s research.

To help better understand the important new study about Black audiences, the Institute recently spoke with Charlene Polite Corley, Nielsen’s Vice President for Diverse Insights and Partnerships.

Here is our conversation, with some answers edited for clarity and brevity.

What was the inspiration for this study?

Representation and the desire for more inclusion is very important to Nielsen.
And so I thought it would be really useful to dive in deeper to see what that meant for the Black audience. With Latino communities and Asian American communities, we talk about the impact on culture and ask, “Were you born here? Were your parents born here? What languages do you speak?” That level of detail also exists in Black America.
For a long time, I’ve heard the conversation around how much media engagement is in the Black community without a lot of context about what some of those drivers are. As a culture, we’ve had to fill in the blanks for a lot of things.

When you look at the impact of slavery and kind of starting over culturally, content is a key part of that. You know, “Have you seen this show? Have you heard the song?” Sharing media experiences is a cultural tradition for Black Americans. And so I thought putting all of that together with some data would help us have a more nuanced conversation. That can help us see more of the content and the campaigns that we are hungry for. So that’s the intent and the spirit.

The study says that today’s $1.7 trillion in Black buying power is projected to top $2 trillion by 2026. Where do you see it heading and what’s driving this growth?

As the population grows, there’s more opportunity for that buying power to grow alongside it. And when you specifically talk about Black America, it’s Black women who are leading from an entrepreneurial standpoint, right? Starting new businesses. Also in the report, we talk about the priority that the community has put on spending with Black-owned businesses.

Our last report focused on spending time with Black-owned media, so that priority of equity in the community and financial growth within the community continues to be a priority.

Some of that entrepreneurial spirit, plus the population growth, will continue to get that buying power up there. And there’s not too many brands who can afford to walk away from $2 trillion.

Your study is going to shed light on this for a lot of people, but have you sensed that media marketers are catching on to these trends? Are they aware of the power of the Black audience?

I think we have seen some progress. I’m excited to hopefully see that continue this year. We know we’re in a different period right now where (media executives) might say, “Well, we’ve done enough. Maybe we can stop now.”

And I think what the data is telling us is that the audience says, “No, no. Keep the foot on the gas. We want more.”

So yes, and yes, we’ve made progress and our data shows that Black audiences are saying that more is more. The message is that we want to continue to see representation on screen and across the media that we engage with and that we want to continue to see nuanced representation, both in content and in advertising. [a]

It’s definitely an opportunity for the media industry to continue to look at how we can be more inclusive and more thoughtful about how we represent not only Black audiences in the U.S. but around the world.

The study says that 43 percent of Black respondents from across five countries strongly agreed: They wish they saw more representation of their identity group when they watch TV. How dramatically has it changed? And where do you see that in the next few years?

We talked about different dimensions of diversity. When we look at different segments of the population, Black queer audiences said they often feel misrepresented. For example, 7 out of 10 told us that they frequently are feeling misrepresented when they’re engaging with media content.

With Black men, 2 out of 3 respondents said they often feel misrepresented. For Black women, it was 60 percent. So with every segment of the population that we looked at, more than half of them said, ‘Hey, with all this content we’re consuming, there’s a lot of times where we’re still not getting it right.”

Now, I applaud the fact that we’re showing up in these different places. But we’re also in a moment where we can be more thoughtful and inclusive about how you are writing a character, how you are casting someone, or how you can even push that further to tell a different story.

Representation is one thing, but the study notes that when there are Black characters in media, the portrayal is not always flattering. There are still tropes and stereotypes.

Yes, so we’ve even done some research previously, where we asked, “OK, so who’s in the writers’ room? Who do you have telling the story?”

One of the key segments that we looked at was the respondents who were Black with disabilities. So if you’re going to tell that story, but you don’t have anybody behind the scenes or in the room with that expertise, folks in that identity group can probably sniff that out. There are ways to tell a story with care, with context, that are important and we can continue to improve on. Take for example, “Abbott Elementary.” There are three Black female characters in the show who are very different and show many dimensions that aren’t often seen in a single program.

The study says that Black immigrants will account for 1/3 of the U.S. Black population by 2060. Are advertisers aware of this projection and are they going to start growing with that audience?

If advertisers aren’t aware, they sure will be after this report. We talk about the complexity that’s coming. But it’s also quite important to point out the complexity that’s already here, right? There’s an opportunity for more nuance.

About 1 in 5 Black Americans is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. And when you look, a third of our projected population growth will be from immigration from other countries. That is a rich tapestry of experience, of cultural behavior that is coming into Black America and adding to the traditions already here.

Despite all the power of Black audiences, data showed that Black influencers make far less than white influencers on Instagram and other platforms. How do you go about changing that dynamic?

Part of it was we wanted to specifically ask questions about the value and, again, the demand for Black creators and influencers because of how that pay gap has been reported. It was really important to me to dive deeper into that and figure out how many folks actually feel “It’s important for me to follow Black creators on social media.”

We found pretty broad support – not just among Black audiences, but I think the total U.S. was around 41 percent saying, “It’s important for me to follow black creators on social.”

When you look at it, by generation, it was more than half of white Gen-Z respondents saying, hey, “It’s important for me to follow Black creators.’ So both inside and outside of Black community, there is demand for the trends and for the culture that Black creators lead.

I think there will be great opportunities for brands to just connect on different levels. But it does take some understanding about many of the different segments that will be prominent within the culture today and going forward.

What in the Nielsen study encouraged you about the progress being made?

What struck me was the global demand for representation in every single market we talked to. Oftentimes, when we looked at the data side by side, Black America suggested there’s been some progress. It was some of these other countries, especially in the UK and Nigeria where Black respondents were saying, ‘Yes, I want more representation of folks with my skin color, my hair type, my neighborhood.’

So we really tried to ask about different dimensions of diversity, and how people wanted to be represented across media. And I think one of the big takeaways is that the demand for that type of content is really global. And it serves audiences well in all kinds of different markets.