This week, BBC2 launches its latest attempt to attract ethnic minority viewers. The A-Force is a two-hour black entertainment sequence, running for ten weeks at 11.15pm on Fridays.
It includes a black soap shot in Liverpool, about the congregation of a gospel church, an improvised comedy slot, a “raunchy dating show” and an entertainment round-up presented by the Radio 1 DJ Mark Tonderai.
The programme is part of a deliberate attempt to win over black viewers who have deserted the BBC for commercial radio, cable and satellite channels and other media.
There are 2.4 million black and Asian people in Britain, and to find such a sizeable chunk of the population effectively boycotting its programmes came as a shock to an organisation which, because everyone pays for it through the licence fee, believes it has to serve everyone.
The A-Force’s executive producer, Dele Oniya, says black viewers don’t watch because they feel excluded by mainstream programmes. “The black community doesn’t see itself on television, it has no voice on television, and when it is represented on television it’s in a way that is not authentic and has no resonance with black viewers.”
It’s a truism that, for all the prominence of a few positive role models such as News at Ten’s Trevor Macdonald, blacks and Asians on television too often appear only as “pimps and prostitutes”, or as troublemakers, entertainers or victims.
The BBC’s problem is shared by ITV. A study of BARB ratings by Carlton UK concluded that black and Asian viewers spent some 20-30 per cent less time viewing ITV and BBC programmes than their white neighbours – a disparity particularly marked in peaktime.
For Carlton UK, whose Carlton and Central franchise areas between them contain 70 per cent of those 2.4 million black and Asian viewers, the findings have worrying commercial implications.
When the company commissioned qualitative research to find out what the problem was, they discovered that Afro-Caribbeans had a very strong drive for social integration: “Signs of acceptance and recognition were keenly sought, while lack of acknowledgement generated a sense of social marginalisation,” the researchers said.
“We found that these attitudes were particularly prevalent among younger respondents, who had sometimes opted out of white, Eurocentric culture because of personal experiences of discrimination.”
In black households the television is often on – but with the sound turned down, while everyone listens to a black radio station like Choice FM. Satellite channels are popular because sports and imported American programming are more likely to show black people in a positive light.
By contrast, black viewers who might have been pleased to find black characters in British-made programmes were often disappointed: black characters, they thought, frequently lacked black values and didn’t behave in authentic ways.
No doubt this is partly because most mainstream programmes are made by whites. When Carlton’s research department presented their findings to the company’s programme-makers it sparked a lively two and a half hour debate – and a recognition that there wasn’t a single black person in the room.
The A-Force is the BBC’s attempt to combat this problem. It’s made by black writers, producers and performers and it’s full of black characters who ought, as a result, to reflect “black values” and experience.
But Carlton’s conclusion is that A-Force-style programming dedicated to minority audiences may not be the right way forward. A lot of ethnic programming achieves very low conversions among the target audience, who feel patronised.
“The bottom line,” says one of those involved in the Carlton research, “is that specifically targeted programmes, unless they’re done very well and given the same exposure as normal peaktime programming, can be seen as negative – a kind of TV apartheid.”
Carlton’s preferred solution is to improve the representation of blacks – both in terms of accuracy and quantity – in mainstream programming. That’s fine when it comes to regional programming, less easy when it’s a question of producing programming for the network.
Though the Carlton and Central areas may have a high proportion of black and Asian viewers (about 13 per cent in London), an area like Westcountry’s, for instance, has very few. What may seem a sensible when it comes to casting black and Asian actors, for instance, in London may look quite wrong in Plymouth.
Nonetheless, with such a high proportion of their potential viewers apparently alienated by many of the programmes they’re being offered, neither the BBC nor ITV can afford to ignore the problem.