Maybe hip-hop can save television?
Just as hip-hop music crossed over to a broad audience, swelling from urban centers such as Los Angeles and New York City to suburban radios and eventually dominatingApple's (AAPL - Get Report) iTunes, television networks are hoping the genre can raise its ratings, and stock prices.
Following on the successful heels of Fox's (FOXA - Get Report) hip-hop dynasty drama Empire and Starz's music-driven drama Power, about a drug kingpin-nightclub owner, Disney's (DIS - Get Report) ABC Family and rapper Nicki Minaj struck a production deal last week while Starz and Power executive producer and rapper Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson expanded their contract, signaling growing interest in scripted urban music TV capable of appealing to larger diverse audiences that include both black and white viewers.
Shares of New York-based Fox have lost 26% this year while Disney has fallen 16% since Aug. 4 when the Burbank, Calif-based reported its second-quarter earnings.
Jackson's exclusive two-year development deal with subscriber-based Starz, and Minaj's series commitment from cable network ABC Family to executive produce and appear in a scripted comedy series based on her own earlier life in Queens as a burgeoning artist come 25 years after the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air first debuted in 1990 on Comcast's (CMCSA - Get Report) NBC, jumpstarting the career of its rapper lead Will Smith to acting superstardom.
'As an executive, I don't know everything I'd like to know about this culture and interest,' said Carmi Zlotnik, Starz's managing director, said in a phone interview in Los Angeles. 'But Curtis has an insight and authenticity and can bring us great ideas. The African-American and urban audience is important to us. Our programming includes them but also transcends them, bringing in a larger audience. We've seen that with hip-hop, too. I think hip-hop is a vibrant, interesting culture. It was always attractive. The music in Power continues to be a very large part of the creative package.'
Helmed by showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh and based in part on Jackson's background as a New York drug dealer before he launched his commercial rap career almost 15 years ago, Power premiered in 2014, before Empire's series premiere in January.
Now filming its third season, the hip-hop fueled show, whose lead James 'Ghost' St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) struggles to leave his drug empire and succeed at being a legitimate club owner, set a ratings high for Starz with its mid-August second season finale, which reached 2.39 million viewers, according to Nielsen stats.
'We have been exposed to lyrical and visual representations of a hip-hop perspective or way of life in music, video, television, and film for roughly thirty years,' said Murray Forman, a professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University, and author of the books 'Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop(2002), One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television, and co-editor of That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004).
'So rather than looking at Nicki Minaj's proposed new TV show on ABC Family or Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson's show Power as a rupture or as something radically new, it might be more accurate to view them as a culmination of sorts,' Forman said, adding that they draw from numerous cultural sources and aesthetic influences, with tropes inPower reminiscent of movies such as 1991's New Jack City and 1998's Belly, plus raps by Jackson and Rick Ross.
While Empire's second season second episode last week experienced a 20% drop in 18 to 49 adult viewers, with 13.74 million viewers overall tuning in compared to 16 million viewers for its season premiere, according to live plus same-day national Nielsen estimates, the broadcast network drama still clearly dominates primetime Wednesdays.
The show's heady mix of original hip-hop and R&B songs, glitzy costuming and dramatic story lines between warring siblings and exes, including record label matriarch and breakout character Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), continues to capture the attention of viewers and fans on social media.
'Power was out first, and I think it was influential in the way they created Empire,' said Zlotnik. 'It showed a path in what could be done in a broadcast TV world. They're both shows that are unique and supported by different audiences. ... Sameness, and the known, has no value in programming. We're always looking for something that's unique and special, and cuts through the cacophony of other things that are out there.'
Forman compared Empire's appeal to that of another scripted music genre show, ABC's country-themed Nashville, which premiered in 2012. It isolated a genre and cultural scene and constructed a narrative within character types associated with country music that could be circulated and recycled, he said.
Both shows also fulfilled a commercial objective by releasing well-marketed soundtracks in a savvy way.
'Over the past year, Empire on the Fox network has done something very similar with hip-hop,' Forman added. 'I see these two shows serving as cultural bookends on our television screens, representing different racial and cultural identities and different creative aesthetics while exploring archetypal themes of industry, family, power, love, deceit.'
So while more in-depth plot and casting details for Minaj's upcoming show have not been released, and Jackson's new projects are further out on the horizon, the power of genre TV also means sticking to tried-and-true narrative structures, conforming at some point to what producers understand and what promoters can sell to advertisers and audiences, with story lines that still have a powerful, defining familiarity within the TV medium, said Forman.
That applies to saucy hit-maker Minaj.
'Her show, while ostensibly developed as a unique riff on her Trinidadian roots and upbringing in the U.S., still has to work within the structures of TV,' he said. 'And this makes it hard to innovate or break into new modes of representation that might, in fact, really move viewers toward stories that throw new light on immigrant life and the experience of a dynamic young black woman growing up and finding her way into the limelight.'