This is the best of times for the cable news industry during a period that is the worst for our nation. Considered a waning industry with an aging audience, the three major networks — CNN, Fox, MSNBC — enjoyed boosts to 2020 ratings and profits during the global pandemic. As a result, most Americans locked down in their homes became captive to cable news, a validator of influencers who shape policy and affirm the values of its loyal viewers.
With the median age between 55-65, both CNN and MSNBC enjoy a slight majority of women viewers, and their Black audiences are significantly higher than society, 19% for MSNBC and 21% for CNN. Even the ratings leader Fox, claiming Republican-leaning mostly older male viewers, reports a 10% Black audience.
Do these entities have a responsibility to be inclusive of the audiences that keep them alive, or does the status quo of exclusion dictate who's at the table?
A new study — "Who’s At The PrimeTime Table" — reveals that Black women — especially older Black women — are sorely underrepresented as hosts, contributors and experts during the coveted primetime hours at the three major cable news networks.
Of the 1,867 appearances logged during the study review period, Black women 55 and older constituted an abysmal 28 appearances, reflecting 1.6% of the entire lineup. Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that non-Black men dominated — 67 percent across all programs. In addition, older Black men totaled 75 appearances (4 percent), compared to older non-Black women's 107 appearances (6 percent). Black women 54 and younger, also underrepresented, constituted a total of 84 appearances.
Cable news microcosmically illustrates the whiting out and aging out of Black women in the broader media and in policy circles. Most older women, especially those with vibrant professional footprints, are invisiblized by ageism. But Black women are further saddled with the triple jeopardy of age, gender and racial inequities.
That nagging supposition drove the Berkeley Media Studies Group’s quantitative probe that included nine programs between 7 and 10 p.m., Monday through Friday, over a six-week snapshot from May 24 through June 30. This period encompassed the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and the inaugural Juneteenth federal holiday — news events that assume expansion of Black appearances.
It's also worth noting that none of the nine primetime cable news programs is hosted by a woman 55+. During the review period, the sole Black host, Joy Reid, 52, far outdistanced the other shows’ Black guest bookings — nearly 43% of all her guests. But even Reid fell short on inclusion, as 60% of her appearances were men.
In a highly fragmented media milieu, the possibilities are more crystalized than the failings. Every problem surfaces a solution. Is the absence of older Black women on cable air because they have nothing to say? Or does the dearth of appearances speak to the inability of bookers and producers to find them?
Our response was to settle the argument with an online directory, PrimeTime55+. We invite news decision-makers to meet our thought leaders and change agents. They affirm that Black women are worthy of being seen and heard.
Gwen McKinney is the creator of the nonprofit public engagement initiative Unerased/Black Women Speak.
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