"A good deal of reality programming depends upon sensationalistic representations," Perry added. "I think what makes it troublesome in respect to race is the proliferation of black stereotypes, particularly for black women. But that's also where the appeal lies, even for the black viewers."
The antics featured on these reality series have sparked a growing backlash: viewers have created petitions demanding VH1 cancel shows, advertisers have pulled ads and critics blast the network for promoting crass and negative images of black women. In "Love & Hip Hop," which follows women connected to the world of hip-hop, punches are thrown and heels are used as weapons, just as in "Basketball Wives," which has become VH1's analogue toBravo'spopular "Real Housewives" franchise. The intense story lines, Calderone added, while in-your-face, "when you peel it all away, it's about struggle."
Shaunie O'Neal, ex-wife ofShaquille O'Neal, stars in and executive produces "Basketball Wives" and admits the series and its offshoots have deviated from her original vision for the show.
"I had never been around a bunch of women my age that actually would physically fight," said O'Neal. "I've been around women who argue. The physical part — never in my adulthood have I had some girlfriends where I would think things might pop off at any second. I'm like, 'Wait a minute. We are in our 30s and there are actually physical altercations happening.'"
"It's a personal struggle for me because I see what people are saying," she added. "I see the point of, 'You're showing black women in a bad light,' blah, blah, blah. I get it. At the same time, I can't control what the ladies are doing."
In a bid to balance out the negative portrayals with more positive ones, VH1 rolled out more wholesome reality series such as "What Chili Wants," "Fantasia for Real" and more recently "La La's Full Court" and "Styled by June" — but none has generated the same buzz or resounding success.
"I think there's often a disconnect between shows that bring in viewers and shows that bring in advertisers," said Ethan Heftman, a media buyer at Initiative. "Reality programming like "Styled by June" and "La La's Full Court Life" — those are shows that are a little more advertiser friendly." On the other hand, he says, "'Basketball Wives' is in a bit of a PR backlash right now. I don't think that that necessarily attracts advertisers. Shows like that and 'Love & Hip Hop' are a mixed bag."
Other networks are picking up VH1's cue and developing programming for African American viewers but are finding quieter ways to cater to the audience. WE TV recently found success with "Braxton Family Values," a reality show centered on R&B singer Toni Braxton and her female siblings. And its Thursday prime-time lineup is devoted to reality series featuring African American women, including gospel group Mary Mary. Style Network, owned by NBC Universal, will soon launch the second season of "Tia & Tamera." The flailing Oprah Winfrey Network, meanwhile, is taking cues from "Sweetie Pies," a show about a family-owned business that scored well with the African American audience.
And former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson just announced he would be launching a 24-hour network, Aspire, at the end of June that would, in his view, focus on "positive, uplifting images of African Americans."
Shaunie O'Neal too seems to yearn for a more wholesome alternative. In last week's fourth-season finale, she paid a visit to her pastor to discuss her concerns about how "Basketball Wives" reflects on her professionally.
"I feel like there's nothing else that I can do," she told him. "At this point, I can no longer defend it, I can no longer stand by it." "Basketball Wives" will return for a fifth season.
The network brass also seems aware of possible shortcomings.
"You want to have a network that has people that at least look like you," Calderone says. "There's still work to be done."