Premium cable — beginning with HBO — has led the quality programming revolution that has now spread so virulently through television that there aren’t enough hours to watch everything you like.
But it hasn’t always featured a tonnage of lead actors of color. There are conspicuous and eminent exceptions — HBO’s The Wire — and there have certainly been shows with diverse casts (HBO’s True Blood and Showtime’s The L Word). Yet, as Starz CEO Chris Albrecht put it on an earnings call last year, there are audiences who pay for HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and Starz who are “underserved in the current television landscape.”
The show Albrecht was referring to when he made that comment was Starz’s Power, which finished its first season on Saturday night, and has been renewed for a second one. Created by Courtney Kemp Agboh — who, as a woman of color who is not Shonda Rhimes, is an extreme rarity — and executive produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Power is a crime story about the tangled life of James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a club owner, drug dealer, (cheating) husband, and father.
In Power, Albrecht has seemingly gotten what he hoped for; in its first season, the show had the highest concentration of African-American viewers since The Wire. Also notable: Those two series are the only scripted shows on premium cable since 2006 with audiences that are more than 50% black.
Yes, only two shows out of dozens and dozens have an audience that’s more than half black. Looking at the Nielsen data for audience composition across premium cable’s scripted shows yields a strange, fascinating list. It’s a very different list than you would see if the data were arranged as the number of African-American households or viewers for each show. That list would generally favor the most popular shows which, logically, also have a large number black viewers — The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, True Blood, and other massive hits. But when it comes to audience composition, the 78 shows — all airing from 2006 through now, because that is the year Nielsen began counting DVR usage — reveal a different slice of premium cable from what’s generally covered. (For comparison’s sake, network television’s diversity game-changer, Scandal, has an audience that is 37% black.)
I’ll include data points throughout the post, with some explanatory bits at the bottom as well, but one big methodology note here: These numbers are all from what Nielsen calls Live + Same Day ratings of each show’s premiere viewing, meaning, viewers who watch a show live or within several hours of its initial airing. As we all know, many people watch shows later on their DVRs, on-demand, or during a rerun. Premium cable companies are especially agnostic about when viewers watch, since they are subscription services, and not ad-based. With all of the different ways to watch, a show like Power ends up with 4 million viewers for each episode; Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones had an average cumulative audience of 19 million. But in order to compare apples to apples, the Live + Same Day premiere episode ratings are what we are using here.
As you look through the shows below, you’ll notice, unsurprisingly, that those with black leads or diverse casts dominate the Top 15, whether that’s HBO’s Treme or short-lived No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, or Showtime’s current hit House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle. Generally, the more broadly popular the show is, the further down the rankings it falls — but not always. Beyond that, the list is just… well, it’s unexpected! TV nerds may laugh about what’s ranked last, though — whatever divides us, we all can agree about John From Cincinnati.
1. Power, Starz (June 2014-present): 71%
2. The Wire, HBO (2002-2008*): 58%
*As noted in the introduction, this Nielsen data is from 2006 (when the measurement service switched to its current model) through the present. The Wire premiered in 2002, so the majority of its run is not included here. But for the two seasons that are, it not only ranks second in composition, but is also No. 2 in African-American households (an average of 547,000 per episode).
3. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, HBO (2009): 42%
Note: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ran for a seven-episode single season.
4. The Underground, Showtime (2006): 41%
Note: The Underground ran for a 10-episode single season.
5. Sleeper Cell, Showtime (2005-2006*): 40%
*Sleeper Cell’s second season aired in 2006.
6. Boss, Starz (2011-2012): 31%
7. Meadowlands, Showtime (2007): 30%
Note: Meadowlands ran for an eight-episode single season.
8. Treme, HBO (2010-2013): 27%
9. Strike Back, Cinemax (2011-present): 27%
Treme and Strike Back have the same composition of African-American viewers, but I placed Treme higher because its per-episode average of black households was 124,000 and Strike Back’s is 67,000.
10. Crash, Starz (2008-2009): 26%
11. The L Word, Showtime (2004-2009*): 25%
*The L Word premiered in 2004, before our sample. This data reflects Seasons 3-6, but not its first two.
12. House of Lies, Showtime (2012-present): 24%
13. Brotherhood, Showtime (2006-2008*): 24%
*This data is from Brotherhood’s second and third seasons. And though Brotherhood and House of Lies have the same composition of African-American viewers, I placed House of Lies higher because it averages a black household audience of 141,000 compared to Brotherhood’s 60,000.
14. Getting On, HBO (2013-present): 23%
Getting On, which returns this fall, aired a six-episode first season (from where this data is drawn).
15. In Treatment, HBO (2008-2010): 23%
16. Hunted, Cinemax (2012): 23%
17. Doll & Em, HBO (2014): 23%
Getting On, In Treatment, Hunted, and Doll & Em all had or have a composition of 23% African-American households. Getting On’s per-episode average of black households is 66,000, In Treatment’s was 40,000, Hunted’s (which ran for one eight-episode season) was 31,000, and Doll & Em’s was 22,000. And Doll & Em aired one six-episode season.
18. Enlightened, HBO (2011-2013): 22%
19. Gravity, Starz (2010): 22%
20. Web Therapy, Showtime (2011-present): 22%
The number of African-American households per episode breaks the tie: Enlightened, 30,000; Gravity, 19,000; and Web Therapy, 13,000.
21. Spartacus, Starz (2010-2013): 21%
22. Head Case, Starz (2007-2009): 21%
Spartacus drew an average of 171,00 African-American households to Head Case’s 18,000. Thus the higher placement for Spartacus, despite having the same audience composition.
23. The Leftovers, HBO (2014-present): 20%
Note: This data is through the Aug. 3 episode.
24. Banshee, Cinemax (2013-present): 20%
25. Hello Ladies, HBO (2013): 20%
Note: Hello Ladies ran for an eight-episode single season.
26. Magic City, Starz (2012-2013): 20%
Number of African-American viewers for these 20%-ers: The Leftovers, 220,000; Banshee, 76,000; Hello Ladies, 74,000; and Magic City, 70,000.
27. The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Showtime (2008-2011): 19%
28. The Life & Times of Tim, HBO (2008-2012): 19%
Secret Diary of a Call Girl averaged 69,000 black households, and The Life & Times of Tim brought in 27,000.
29. True Blood, HBO (2008-present): 18%
True Blood has the third largest number of African-American households — an average of 474,000 — per episode of the shows on our list, falling behind only The Sopranos and The Wire.
30. Torchwood: Miracle Day, Starz (2011): 18%
Note: The U.K.-produced Torchwood, which is not Miracle Day, ran for four seasons on various BBC channels.
31. Da Vinci’s Demons, Starz (2013-present): 18%
32. Summer Heights High, HBO (2008): 18%
33. Huff, Showtime (2004-2006): 18%
Note: Only Season 2 of Huff is included here because Season 1 aired in 2004-2005. And the average number of African-American households per episode breaking the five-way tie of the 18%-ers: True Blood, 491,000; Torchwood: Miracle Day, 89,000; Da Vinci’s Demons, 59,000; Summer Heights High, 48,000; and Huff, 25,000.
34. Ray Donovan, Showtime (2013-present): 17%
Note: This data is through the show’s Aug. 3 episode.
35. How to Make It in America, HBO (2010-2011): 17%
36. Life’s Too Short, HBO (2012): 17%
Life’s Too Short aired one seven-episode season.
37. Party Down, Starz (2009-2010): 17%
Breaking the 17% tie: Ray Donovan averages 172,000 black households; How to Make It in America, 82,000; Life’s Too Short, 49,000; Party Down, 16,000.
38. Hung, HBO (2009-2011): 16%
39. Veep, HBO (2012-present): 16%
Hung averaged 242,000 African-American households; Veep, 120,000.
40. Boardwalk Empire, HBO (2010-present): 15%
41. The Newsroom, HBO (2012-present): 15%
42. Masters of Sex, Showtime (2013-present*): 15%
*Through its Aug. 3 episode.
43. Girls, HBO (2012-present): 15%
44. Weeds, Showtime (2005-2012): 15%
45. The Borgias, Showtime (2011-2013): 15%
46. Luck, HBO (2012): 15%
47. Family Tree, HBO (2013): 15%
Note: Family Tree aired for one eight-episode season.
48. The United States of Tara, Showtime (2009-2011): 15%
49. Episodes, Showtime (2011-present): 15%
50. The Ricky Gervais Show, HBO (2010-2012): 15%
The tie-breaking, per-episode households for the shows with an audience that is 15% African-American: Boardwalk Empire, 266,000; The Newsroom, 197,000; Masters of Sex, 118,000; Girls, 87,000; Weeds, 84,000; The Borgias, 72,000; Luck, 67,000; Family Tree, 59,000; The United States of Tara, 55,000; Episodes, 46,000; and The Ricky Gervais Show, 20,000.
51. Rome, HBO (2005-2007*): 14%
*Rome’s first season aired in 2005, so only its second is counted here.
52. Shameless, Showtime (2011-present): 14%
53. Eastbound & Down, HBO (2009-2013): 14%
54. Black Sails, Starz, (2014-present): 14%
55. The Tudors, Showtime (2007-2010): 14%
56. Little Britain USA, HBO (2008): 14%
Among the shows that have a household audience that is 14% African-American, here’s how the ties were broken: Rome, 198,000; Shameless, 141,000; Eastbound & Down, 96,000; Black Sails, 81,000; The Tudors, 69,000; and Little Britain USA, 62,000.
57. The Sopranos, HBO (1999-2007*): 13%
*Only Season 6, Parts 1 and 2, aired in the time period of our sample. Within that range, The Sopranos has the largest number of African-American households of any premium cable show from 2006 through now, with an average of 688,000 per episode. That makes sense considering The Sopranos is the second most-watched show in premium cable’s history (HBO’s Game of Thrones is No. 1).
58. Game of Thrones, HBO (2011-present): 13%
Note: Through its four seasons, Game of Thrones draws an average of 371,000 black households, making it the fourth most-watched show among African-Americans.
59. Big Love, HBO (2006- 2011): 13%
60. Deadwood, HBO (2004-2006*): 13%
*Only the third and final season was included because of our 2006 cutoff.
61. Silicon Valley, HBO (2014-present): 13%
62. Nurse Jackie, Showtime (2009-present): 13%
63. Californication, Showtime (2007-2014): 13%
64. The Big C, Showtime (2010-2013): 13%
65. Bored to Death, HBO (2009-2011): 13%
66. Looking, HBO (2014-present): 13%
For the shows with an audience that’s 13% African-American, here’s how the ties were broken: The Sopranos, 688,000 households; Game of Thrones, 376,000; Big Love, 211,000; Deadwood, 184,000; Silicon Valley, 154,000; Nurse Jackie, 68,000; Californication, 61,000; The Big C, 61,000 (tied with Californication); Bored to Death, 58,000; Looking, 41,000.
67. Entourage, HBO (2004-2011*): 12%
*The first two seasons of Entourage do not fall within our data pool.
68. Lucky Louie, HBO (2006): 12%
Note: Lucky Louie aired for one 12-episode season (an extra episode was later included on the DVD).
69. Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO (2000-present*): 12%
*Seasons 6-8 are included in our post-2006 sample. And while there has been no sign of this show coming back, the door is open at HBO, so let’s assume it will.
70. Camelot, Starz (2011): 12%
Camelot had one 10-episode season.
71. Tell Me You Love Me, HBO (2007): 12%
Tell Me You Love Me aired for one 10-episode season.
72. Penny Dreadful, Showtime (2014-present): 12%
73. Extras, HBO (2005-2007*): 12%
*The first season of Extras is not included, and the only episode that aired in 2007 was the Christmas special.
Here’s the average per-episode breakdown among the 12% shows: Entourage, 207,000; Lucky Louie, 123,000; Curb Your Enthusiasm, 113,000; Camelot, 77,000; Tell Me You Love Me, 75,000; Penny Dreadful, 66,000; Extras, 48,000.
74. Dexter, Showtime (2006-2013): 11%
75. Flight of the Conchords, HBO (2007-2009): 11%
Over its eight seasons, Dexter drew an average of 115,000 black households per episode; in two seasons, Flight of the Conchords brought in 61,000.
76. True Detective (2014-present): 9%
77. Homeland, Showtime (2011-present): 9%
The eight-episode Season 1 of True Detective drew an average of 137,000 black households for each episode; the three seasons of Homeland have drawn an average of 111,000.
78. John From Cincinnati, HBO (2007): 8%
Notes: Each Nielsen family designates what’s called a “head of household,” who can be a man or woman, and is at least 16. Nielsen also designates the race of the head of household, and that is the data used here.
Miniseries, such as John Adams on HBO or Dancing on the Edge on Starz, are not included. And in case you’re trying to remember when HBO’s Six Feet Under and Sex and the City ended their runs, it was Aug. 2005 and Feb. 2004, respectively.