Black Coffee No Cream: Why VH1 is Failing in its Attempts to Diversify their Programming

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In the August 15th issue of the Hollywood Reporter, an article entitled Race and Ratings: VH1's Latest Launches Show What's Working — and What's Not outlined the network’s continued success with reality shows that feature Black women such as Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and Basketball Wives while they struggle to get an audience with some of their new shows such as LeAnn & Eddie, Candidly Nicole and Dating Naked, all of which feature predominantly white casts.  According to the piece, VH1’s ratings in 2014 were up by 20 percent in primetime among adults 18-49 — the biggest rise among the top 25 basic cable networks.  

In the same article, Susan Levison, VH1’s EVP of Original Programming & Production was quoted saying the following about her viewer acquisition strategy:  “The goal is to bring a general market audience back into the fold in addition to servicing our African-American audience."  Which is interesting, as just three years earlier in a press release issued for their short-lived reality show What Chili Wants in 2011,  Jeff Olde, VH1’s then EVP of Original Programming & Production, made no mention of general market (read: White) audiences when describing his strategy: “We constantly have to evolve and tell our audience different stories. I love that we’ve been able to get more diverse with our audience by — in large part — attracting African-American women to the network. We got them in the door with some shows, and now I’m excited about where we’re going and how we’re telling them different kinds of stories.”

As a Black female media consumer, I can’t help but wonder what has caused this about face in their strategy.  Could it be that the VH1 is simply trying to expand their already profitable stranglehold on Black female audiences by pulling in even larger numbers? A strategy whose genesis is somewhere along the lines of, “Well, we’ve already got the Black women in the bag – let’s double or quadruple our ratings by bringing back White audiences!” Or, is it that they feel their corporate identity has been tarnished by the stereotypical, misogynistic and racist depictions of Black women that have made them millions of dollars and are now trying to distance themselves from the brand perception that VH1 is essentially Viacom’s “Ratchet BET”? 

Whatever the actual reasoning may be for their stated desire to attract general market audiences, at this time White people don’t seem particularly interested in the lives of White celebrities and regular White people (at least on VH1). VH1 has a viewer demographic that isn’t going to be easily changed by throwing some White faces into the sea of Black ones dominating their programming. The reason is simple: they aren’t thinking about WHY these shows are so popular and HOW they can realistically overcome the racial bias towards Black women that has been implanted in and/or supported in the general media market in large part BECAUSE of their reality shows. They have become a victim of their own success, as Black female racial stereotypes are now by default inextricably linked to the VH1 brand.  I mean, think about it.  How do they attract White female audiences to a network that is mainly known for its hypersexualized, violent images of Black women?  Women who epitomize the antithesis of what it means to be a White woman in America?

VH1 wanting to diversify their audience base isn’t unexpected.  But what I DO find unexpected is why so many otherwise conscious and informed Black women are ‘hooked’ on reality programming that promotes horrific Black female stereotypes.  As in all addictions, the motivating force on why someone has a preferred “drug of choice” (which in this case would be “Reality TV Crack”) isn’t the drug itself but the hidden issues that would lead a Black woman to WANT to ingest “Reality TV Crack” in the first place.  In a post on TheGrio.com, I shared what I believe is one of the primary reasons Black women are flocking in droves to the violent and racist portrayals of their sisters on the Love & Hip Hop franchises: “…it seems that the main draw of the show is the opportunity to lampoon other women for their dubious relationship and lifestyle choices.  The German’s have a word for this – schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering.  ‘Love & Hip Hop’ is an opportunity for us to be entertained and feel morally/intellectually superior all in one shot.”

One doesn’t have to have a degree in psychology to know that it’s natural for people to try and feel better about their own lives by comparing themselves to others who are worse off.  Let’s face it.  To the average VH1 viewer, it doesn’t really matter that Joseline Hernandez of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta is running around town in luxury cars and rocking thousand dollar Louboutins on her feet. To the viewers, she’s still an uneducated former stripper who’s making her money by shaking her tailfeather and fighting with her man and his ex on television. And no matter how high her pay grade escalates, at the end of the day she’s a professional trainwreck.    

VH1 embarked upon an intentional campaign to attract Black female viewers by barraging them with stereotypes such as the ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Sapphire’, images that highlight the class divisions and increase the gap between the often hard working, educated middle class Black women who watch ‘ratchet’ reality TV and the new money gold diggers on these shows whose lives serve as “entertainment”.   Black women as a whole struggle with economic disparities and issues of poverty at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. Shows like Love & Hip Hop provide an escape from the harsh realities of many Black women’s lives while reinforcing the popular belief (to Black women of all socioeconomic classes) that a woman’s financial woes can be magically solved by aligning yourself with a man of high-net worth (or I should say, alleged high-net worth based upon the number of bankruptcies and foreclosures filed by so many male and female reality show cast members) in order to give you and your children the economic security that eludes so many of us. Just as The Cosby Show and A Different World were aspirational programming for Black viewers at the time, today’s reality television shows are unfortunately, at least from a financial perspective, aspirational to an entire new generation of television audiences during an era where many of us are still struggling to find solid financial ground after the Great Recession of 2009.

Going back to the Hollywood Reporter article, the fact that VH1 thinks that the lightweight antics of LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian are going to level the racial playing field on a network dominated by ratings juggernauts featuring predominately all-black casts is laughable at best.  Perhaps another strategy the network could take to diversify their audience is to slowly remove the negative portrayals of Black women and replace them with more balanced, nuanced and dare I say, accurate ones?  That way, when they introduce ‘light’ fare (double entendre intended) such as Candidly Nicole, they actually might have a chance at engaging a wider audience.  However, an approach like this would require VH1 to take a potentially huge financial hit if their tactic backfires. Not only would they have to revert back to their established successful brand of “Ratchet BET” but it would be the media world’s equivalent of the disastrous financial snafu Coca Cola hit in the 80s when they tried to sell the public on “New Coke”, a branding debacle considered by many to be one of the greatest consumer product marketing failures in recent history. 

The bottom line is that VH1 has a wonderful opportunity to present shows that celebrate and reflect the strength and tenacity of Black women instead of its current harmful stereotypical portrayals. Whether their motivation is based upon finance or brand positioning is irrelevant to me.  I just want the exploitation of the negative images of Black women for profit to stop. Period. End of story.

Sil Lai Abrams is a writer, inspirational speaker, domestic violence activist, and author of 'No More Drama.' She is also the founder of Truth in Reality, a media advocacy organization committed to changing the way Black women and interpersonal violence are portrayed on reality television. Follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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