LOS ANGELES—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.
Roman and her costars—the wives, girlfriends and exes of NBA players—regularly engage in fierce battles: wine bottles hurled, hair pulled, faces slapped and even an attempt to use a planter as a weapon.
“Basketball Wives” is just one of several increasingly controversial 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 tamer “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 money because in this moment they have the ear of a particular public. 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—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 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 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-themed 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 VH1 shows feature black characters and have large black audiences.
“A good deal of reality programming depends upon sensationalistic representations,” Perry added. “I think what makes it troublesome is the proliferation of black stereotypes, particularly for black women. But that’s also where the appeal lies, even for black viewers.”
The outrageous antics featured on these reality shows have sparked a growing backlash: Viewers created petitions demanding VH1 cancel these shows, advertisers have pulled ads and critics blast the network for promoting crass 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 to Bravo’s popular “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 of Shaquille O’Neal, stars in and executive produces “Basketball Wives” and admits the series has deviated from her original.
“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 embraced by African Americans.
And former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson announced he would be launching a 24-hour network, Aspire, in 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 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.”