On Tuesday night, BET unveiled Being Mary Jane, its new drama starring Gabrielle Union. More than 5.1 million people tuned in—the premiere was shown back to back, with the first run earning 3.3 million viewers, and the second snagging an additional 1.8 million—making it one of BET’s most successful premieres to date.
The show is about a young talk-show host who navigates life (her friend almost commits suicide), love (she slept with a married man), and her dysfunctional family (her mother is dying and her niece wants to do porn), plus tons of other scandals likely to arise during the show’s eight-episode season. Being Mary Jane is clearly aimed at women, who so far have made up three-quarters of its audience.
It’s also the latest in BET’s attempt to move away from music videos and establish itself as a hit-maker in the mold of AMC and FX. Last year, BET’s audience was about 85 percent black, according to media analyst company Horizon Media, and as any regular TV or movie-watcher knows, it’s still a challenge for black-focused programming to cross over to white audiences. That’s probably why so much has been made of the success of ABC’s 2012 political thriller, Scandal, which saw Kerry Washington become the first African American female lead in a network drama in more than 40 years. On the eve of the show’s second season, the New York Times wondered “whether Scandal represents a new era of post-racial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity.”
Mary Jane has gotten middling reviews so far, and it seems unlikely that it’ll be BET’s ticket to a Mad Men-level breakout. But it does highlight the often ignored fact that there’s an audience of black women who’ve been waiting—and waiting—for cable networks to create quality programming specifically for them.
According to Nielsen, blacks watch 37 percent more TV than the U.S. average, and black women watch the most TV of all. Twenty-one percent of black women have a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared with 16 percent of black men), they make up 52 percent of the black workforce, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they own the majority of black-owned businesses. But the amount of TV shows written for or about them is, well, limited at best. And when black women characters are on TV, they’re either depicted by the same few actresses over and over again—as Washington pointed out in her pointed Saturday Night Live opener—or they’re just Tyler Perry or Martin Lawrence in drag.
For years, BET has been criticized for the way it depicts women—mostly in the music videos it airs but occasionally in its scripted TV shows. In 2010, BET’s chief executive, Debra Lee, addressed this issue by hosting a forum called “Leading Women Defined,” at which she said, “I think black women really want to see themselves as professionals, as mothers, as daughters. We want the whole spectrum of our womanhood to be reflected [on our shows].” That same year, a study by both Essence and Procter & Gamble echoed that sentiment: Eighty percent of black women, it found, were concerned about the way they were portrayed in media.
Not much has changed in those four years, but maybe it’s starting to. The early viewer response to Being Mary Jane reemphasizes the fact that when it comes to television, black women are watching, and when they find a show they like, they will make it a success.