“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Love & Hip Hop” are not only drawing in massive African-American audiences, they’re bringing in the big bucks for cable networks. An article in the April 11th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, titled Race and Reality: The Quiet Success of the Black Unscripted Boom, details how and why reality shows with predominantly Black casts are now among the biggest hits on TV.
According to THR, “RHOA” is the most-successful show on Bravo, pulling in more than 4.5 million viewers in February, the network’s best numbers. The show’s current sixth season — one of the top five reality series across all of cable — pulls in an African-American audience of 68 percent.
So why are these shows so successful? “I think you’re seeing the viewership increase because of more opportunities for African-Americans to see themselves and their experiences reflected back to them,” said Esther Franklin, an executive vp at Starcom MediaVest Group who studies media habits of minority groups. “I don’t see it extending on broadcast, but this will continue to play out on cable.”
Star NeNe Leaks, who landed a wedding spinoff show last year, said she believes the Black unscripted boom is a result of the undeniable popularity of reality content. “There’s more opportunity now, but a lot of it is that there’s so much more reality,” she told the magazine.
“Love & Hip Hop” creator Mona Scott-Young, who transitioned into TV in 2005, said her VH1 series makes up more than 75 percent of her company’s business. “It’s opened the doors, and people want to hear what I have on the slate,” she said of her sometimes-controversial content. “I think there’s a real interest in African-American culture overall. It’s an underserved audience.”
Of course, high rating do not mean the material is loved by all. “Love & Hip Hop” — which draws in an 85 percent African-American audience — is often at the center of the backlash.
As writer Michael O’Connell points out:
“Diversifying the offerings, as many insiders see it, is the crucial next step. Celebrity-driven efforts — see WE tv’s Braxton Family Values, just renewed for a fourth season — seemingly are immune from exhaustion, but formats like Housewives eventually tend to fall to Earth, ratings-wise. And there always is the cloud of concern over reality’s penchant for sensationalism. Fighting is commonplace on all Real Housewives series, and Love & Hip Hop Atlanta found itself the subject of unfavorable publicity with the nonfatal March 29 shooting of castmember Benzino — allegedly the result of a family feud. “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” cautions Franklin. “While the community is excited to have these series, I think it’s going to be a challenge to make sure they stay in touch with the needs of the community so that this generation of programming doesn’t become the new generalization.”
If our shows are so successful, who are they often overlooked in the mainstream world? O’Connell said networks often limited black-targeted content because of advertising dollars. “The National Association of Broadcasters projects African-American buying power rising 25 percent to $1.2 trillion between 2010 and 2015,” he reported. “Still, there long has been a disparity between advertising revenue for white viewers — black audiences still command smaller rates for networks.”
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