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VH1's reality: A rock and a hard place

The cable network has found an avid market: African American viewers. But shows displaying outrageous behavior are drawing criticism and may turn off advertisers.

June 03, 2012|By Yvonne Villarreal and Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Shaunie O'Neal, center right, ex-wife of former basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, stars in and executive produces “Basketball Wives.” At center left is Tami Roman.
Shaunie O'Neal, center right, ex-wife of former basketball star… (John Parra, Getty Images…)

Tami Roman's first experience with reality television turned out to be an early landmark in the genre. During the second season of MTV's groundbreaking "The Real World," a male cast mate aggressively yanked a blanket off a half-naked Roman while she was lying in bed. The scene escalated into rape allegations and resulted in the first expulsion from the show.

Nearly two decades later, Roman returned to reality television as a star of VH1's "Basketball Wives," which recently wrapped its fourth season. While she often appears to be the picture of elegance, she has become known to viewers as a loose cannon, routinely losing her decorum on camera.

Roman and her costars — the wives, girlfriends and exes of NBA players — regularly engage in fierce battles that rival the violent confrontations on the basketball court. This season alone has seen wine bottles hurled, hair pulled, faces slapped and even an attempt to use a planter as a weapon.

"Basketball Wives" is just one of many outrageous reality shows that has transformed the once-demure sister channel of MTV — known for "Pop Up Video" and "Behind the Music" — into an unlikely venue for provocative programs slanted toward a demographic it previously ignored: African Americans.

The Viacom-owned cable channel has found ratings gold with shows such as "Basketball Wives," "Love & Hip Hop," and the less controversial "La La's Full Court" and "T.I. & Tiny" and hopes to keep building on the foundation that started with "Flavor of Love." That 2006 dating show featured female contestants fighting, spitting and defecating on the floor as they vied for the affections of gold-toothed hip-hop lothario Flavor Flav. And VH1 has more reality fare on the way: Its newest contender, "Hollywood Exes," featuring the ex-wives of Eddie Murphy, Prince, R. Kelly, Will Smith and Jose Canseco, premieres this summer.

"They tapped into an audience that is very faithful," said Robin Boylorn, a professor at the University of Alabama who focuses on race studies. "It's smart in terms of marketing and moneymaking because in this moment they have the ear of a particular public, and I think that they took advantage of that — we see it with all the spinoff shows for 'Basketball Wives' and 'Love & Hip Hop.'"

VH1 executives maintain they are merely evolving the network into a more realistic reflection of the world that will appeal to reality fans and music lovers — an alternative to the largely white, middle-class world of much of network TV.

"All of a sudden the network is starting to look like how the world looks," said VH1 President Tom Calderone, who views the network's airing of "Hip Hop Honors" in 2004 as the "watershed" moment in realizing there was an untapped audience. Series such as "Love & Hip Hop" are a reflection, he added, of what networks need to do to remain relevant: "We're creating new celebrities. 'Mob Wives' are new celebrities. 'Basketball Wives' are new celebrities. I think our role is to put a mirror on pop culture and influence pop culture — that's important."

Focusing on these individuals also makes for a smart strategy. African Americans have the highest rate of total TV usage, according to a 2011 Nielsen report — translating to an average of seven hours, 12 minutes each day, two hours above the U.S. average. And they're an attractive demographic for advertisers: Black spending power is estimated to reach $1.1 trillion, according to the State of the African-American Consumer Report. While BET, also owned by Viacom, is still dominant among black viewers, that network abandoned celebrity-focused reality programming after it proved polarizing, instead pursuing a slate of scripted series. "We respect our audience, and we don't try to create programming that is dumbed down and appeals to the lowest common denominator," said Loretha Jones, BET's president of original programming.

This year BET has seen its ratings among its key demographic decline as VH1 has made gains with shows like "Basketball Wives" and "Love & Hip Hop."

"The numbers were great," said Jeff Olde, who oversees all VH1 original programming and production. "It showed to us that an inclusive network can survive." Olde noted that music remains a part of the channel along with non-African-American-focused reality hits such as "Mob Wives." Later this year VH1 will roll out a slate of pop-culture-centric and nostalgia-based new shows, including a gabfest helmed by Jenny McCarthy and "Miss You Much," a revamping of "Where Are They Now."

Imani Perry, a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, said that while the reality genre isn't race-specific, the most popular shows on VH1 become those that feature black characters and have large black audiences.

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