Daytime TV is embracing black entertainers; prime time, less so

J. Fred MacDonald, a media historian and author of the book "Blacks and White TV," said there are also more African Americans onscreen, even at night.

"We as a country have evolved," he said.

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The solid performance of black personalities on daytime television seems to support that. When Cedric replaced the popular Meredith Vieira as host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," he proved to be a bigger draw. Viewership this season has jumped 20% among the coveted demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49. The show attracts more than 3 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen.

"On our shows, me, Steve, Wayne [Brady] and the others are allowed to bring our true personalities and our humor to the shows, and the audiences respond to that authenticity," Cedric said. "But in prime time, the perception of what black people and other minorities are like is still being filtered by the industry, who feel they know what's best."

Audience demographics also help. African Americans, who make up 13% of the U.S. population, make up 18% of the daytime audience, according to Nielsen. And black viewers spend 37% more time watching television than other racial groups.

Still, daytime programmers have been pleasantly surprised that black personalities have connected with younger white, Latino and Asian viewers, prompting the industry to rethink some of its assumptions — and to promote new stars who resonate with diverse audiences.

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Last summer, Warner Bros. scored with "The Real," which featured a lively panel of ethnically diverse women, laughing loudly while comparing notes on Spanx underwear and the sizes of their own rear ends.

The viewership exceeded expectations, and "The Real" got a green light for next season. The show also demonstrated the allure of cultural authenticity, accessibility and chemistry.

"The audience can smell a phony," said Wendy Williams, a former radio DJ whose catty, gossipy syndicated TV talk program "The Wendy Williams Show" reaches nearly 2 million viewers an episode, including a high concentration of African Americans. Her ratings are up about 30% this season compared with a year ago.

"I keep it real — if I feel my wig is slightly off to the back, I'll pull it back down," she said. "They appreciate that it's perfectly imperfect."

Another success story is Strahan, a former NFL defensive end, who succeeded the crotchety father figure Regis Philbin on Disney's syndicated morning talk show, now called "Live With Kelly and Michael." Following Philbin's 2011 exit, producers spent nine months searching for a new co-host alongside Kelly Ripa, trying out 59 guest hosts the majority of them white men. When Strahan joined, ratings shot up.

Meanwhile, Harvey branched out with his own Chicago-based syndicated talk show, which, in its second season, has seen a 30% jump in its audience and now rivals a more heavily promoted show featuring Katie Couric.

"The Queen Latifah Show" is Sony Pictures Television's big bet in syndication for this TV season. Sony combined two soundstages on its Culver City lot and built an elaborate new set for her designed by rocker Lenny Kravitz.

What will it take to see similar gains in prime time? UCLA's Hunt speculated it would take a "perfect storm" of factors, including hit shows with minority-heavy casts, risk-taking executives in boardrooms and pressure from viewers and advocacy groups.

"It's certainly not a simple solution," Hunt said. "All these things would have to happen at once in order to change that pattern so that the traditional wisdom that minorities don't belong out front can be challenged."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com