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An Interview with Arica McKinnon, VP of Solutions Consulting at Nielsen Analytics

An Interview with Arica McKinnon, VP of Solutions Consulting at Nielsen Analytics

After taking a look at Nielsen’s Seen on Screen: The Impact of Diverse Talent in Media BGN spoke with Arica McKinnon, VP of Solutions Consulting at Nielsen Analytics via 

Zoom shortly after Valentine’s Day 2023 to get her nuanced perspective on Black representation in this next phase of the Golden Age of Television.

According to the report, streaming services are popular with Black audiences. Why do you think this is happening?

The great thing about streaming is that you can watch it on your own time, and you can discover the content that most resonates with you. So many shows have been created on streaming services over the last couple of years for Black consumers that keep audiences engaged because they can say, “I see myself in that character,” or “That’s my mom,” or “That’s my auntie.” Black audiences are connecting to streaming, and I think we will continue to see the numbers for streaming increase. 

The key is all about authenticity in representation. Many people say, “You can put our face on the front of your product, or you can put us on the front of any screen, but is that representation authentic? Is that person truly connecting with the Black audience?” And we all know there are even nuances when it comes to the white audience, right? The common theme across the board is how to increase engagement and create good content while ensuring that authentic representation is not only on the screen but also behind the screen.

The report says that the top themes for Black audiences are lost illusions, infidelity, jealousy, and shattered dreams.  What percentage of shows with these themes are created by white producers and writers? 

That’s a good question and something we will have to look into. As a part of our Gracenote inclusion data, where we pull this data from, we can look across the shows and understand what goes on behind the scenes. From what we have seen across a lot of shows, if you have more Black content creators and writers behind the scene, you’re definitely going to see more of a truly authentic connection when it comes to the audience being engaged in the content.

So what does it mean when I see shattered dreams, lost illusions, infidelity, and jealousy being popular themes for Black folks and more positive themes being popular with other groups?

It’s what audiences are drawn to. And I hate to say it, but if you think about those stereotypical themes and you think about some of the content that’s out there, it is around those same themes. People want to watch that content. There are a handful of shows that talk about infidelity that show Black people on the screen. So that’s why those sentiments are highlighted in the report.

That’s what most people are watching?

That’s what a lot of people are engaged in, especially the Black consumer, but then it goes back to the point of where it is truly representative of our culture. Some of these shows are engaging because they’re things that we enjoy, but is it truly representative? Some of the insights looked at the Black characters, whether it’s still a crime show, or sports show, or even some of the game shows, looking at what is the main theme, and again, what is going to keep people engaged. We’ve seen content creators trying to find a balance to have what will keep the audience engaged versus some of those things that could be stereotypical to the Black community.

What was the most compelling aspect of taking on this project?

We see increased engagement, especially among Black consumers, when it comes to streaming on TV. Going back to them having the autonomy to find content and discover content that they truly can connect to, I also feel like, with more content that’s being created, content creators are realizing that they have to be genuinely authentic and represent the community well. We are starting to see more content creators who are Black and multicultural, which is good. I think we’ll continue to see that, too, especially as the consumers say, “Hey, we want to see more people that reflect our culture and that we can relate to and stories that we can also align with.” 

One of our stats showed that the viewership of Black representation on cable is also increasing. When we look across not only streaming content, we’re starting to see some really great shows on cable television where we’re seeing a higher engagement among African Americans. As the data is also promising, it’s showing that we still have some room to grow, especially when it comes to creating authentic content. Still, there is more representation on screens than decades ago. It’s great that there’s more Black talent being represented.

What would you say to anyone interested in a career in television?
Broaden their horizons. People always think of being in front of the camera, but it’s equally as important that we have more writers and casting directors behind the scenes. We must be thoughtful about the talent we’re casting for these roles and ensure that talent has ties to the community.

What inspired you and your team to do this work?

My team measures ad effectiveness as well as content, and it’s such a huge opportunity for us to get it right, not only across the media but also when it comes to advertising because oftentimes we’re [Black people] not even included in the media marketing. I have a passion for making sure that there’s true representation across different media, not only television but also podcasts, radio, and digital, as well as ensuring that brands understand the importance of truly being able to connect with the Black consumer. Because if they’re not and if they’re not doing it authentically, it will be a huge missed opportunity on their part.

BGN asked Arica McKinnon if there was data around the increasing portrayal of the deaths of Black characters in TV shows being used as a tool for the emotional development of non-Black characters. We also asked if the portrayal of Black couples of all sexual orientations in loving relationships had decreased in the past few years, but her team did not view the data with those questions in mind. McKinnon mentioned that her team could check the data and see if the questions I asked were included in the results. Even though the data in Nielson’s Seen on Screen report are encouraging in terms of Black representation, the report also revealed that only 32% of Black audiences thought the portrayal of Black characters was authentic. 

Although there have been improvements in representation this past year, looking at the quality of representation of Black characters on TV, there is more work to be done. Adding Black writers, directors, producers, and casting directors could help storytellers create and center Black characters with a deeper level of authenticity. 

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