African Americans watching Hollywood by the millions

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So, I actually managed to stay awake through the 82nd Annual Academy Awards. (OK, I dozed off a few times, but I was up for the parts that mattered.) How many of you watched the Oscars on March 7? No need to ‘fess up.

So, I actually managed to stay awake through the 82nd Annual Academy Awards. (OK, I dozed off a few times, but I was up for the parts that mattered.)  How many of you watched the Oscars on March 7?  No need to ‘fess up.  I already know! According to The Nielsen Company, who happens to employ me, 26.8 million U.S. households tuned in; 11 percent of those households were African American, which is up 43 percent over last year.  That’s power, people. Networks love higher ratings.   Nielsen data shows that when African Americans are nominated in a major category, we’re more likely to watch Hollywood’s biggest night vicariously from our living rooms because we feel connected to the outcome. This year Precious was the break out success story. It received five nominations, with Mo’Nique strutting away with that best supporting actress Oscar (she walked like she owned that stage didn’t she?) Geoffrey Fletcher landed the best adapted screenplay Award, the first time an African American has ever won for writing.  And newcomer Gabourey Sidibe received a Best Actress nomination. Or perhaps you tuned in to see if Morgan Freeman would take home another golden statue for best actor in Invictus, or how well The Blind Side would do (Sandra Bullock deserved an award just for how well she wore that fabulously red lipstick at the show.) Here’s what I know: over the last five years Nielsen figures show a strong correlation between the number of Black actors nominated and the number of us who watch the show. So far, 2005 had the most Black viewers: 5.27 million.  That year was huge for us:  we had two best actor nominees – Don Cheadle for Hotel Rwanda and Jamie Foxx, who won for Ray. Jamie was also nominated for best supporting actor that year for Collateral, along with Morgan Freeman, who won for Million Dollar Baby.  Actress Sophie Okenedo was nominated for best supporting actress in Hotel Rwanda. In 2007 4.88 million of us tuned in marking the second highest Oscar viewership for Blacks. That was the year of Dreamgirls, remember? Jennifer Hudson won the best supporting actress Oscar for Dreamgirls.  Eddie Murphy was nominated for best supporting actor.  The film also won for best achievement in song and was nominated in best art direction, best costume design and best original song.  The best performance by an actor that year went to Forest Whitaker for The Last King Of Scotland. So even though this year’s Academy Awards show had its highest numbers in 10 years for overall viewers, it was only the third highest viewed Oscars show among Blacks: 4.4 million of us tuned in. Despite the Precious buzz there were not multiple nominees in any category, which existed in 2005 and 2007.  There is power in numbers. And this extends beyond the small screen to the big one. African Americans go to the box office an average of 7 times a year, which lends to the commercial success of any film. Keep that in mind the next time you decide whether to see a film in the theater or to view the version your husband’s cousin’s friend, Junie, wants to sell you. I’m going to go “old school” on you now – back to the early ’90s. Remember the Arsenio Hall Show?  Arsenio would stroke his chin and share “things that make you go, ‘hmmmmm?’”  Well, I had a couple of “hmmm” moments.  Is it only possible for “our” actresses to receive recognition when they play downtrodden or contemptible characters? And do Academy members tend to favor heavier African American women to take home the golden trophy? With the exception of Halle Berry, has there been an exception to this weight rule, ever for a female African American Academy Award winner? Does this possible discomfort with African American beauty partly, then, explain why the stunningly talented Gabourey Sidibe, was not included on the cover of the Hollywood issue (March) of Vanity Fair? I mean – really?  Gabby’s first movie effort ever won a nomination alongside Meryl “16-Oscar nominations” Streep! Yet the New Hollywood cover was exclusively comprised of Gabby’s less illustrious peers – young, all white actresses. New Hollywood?  “Hmmmmmm?” I think Mo’Nique put it best in her acceptance speech that night for having portrayed such a despicable mother in Precious.  She thanked her husband “for showing me how to forgo doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right.”  We ask that Hollywood keeps doing what’s “right.” Because we’re watching, literally, by the millions. Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is SVP of Public Affairs and Government Relations at The Nielsen Company.

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