Why VH1 Gets to Be Black Without the Burden

VH1 has gradually turned itself into a black entertainment network, home to raunchy, riotous reality shows, without the kind of criticisms that have been leveled at BET for similar programming.

Cast members Yung Berg, Masika Kalysha and Sincere Show attend the Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood premiere Sept. 9, 2014, in Hollywood, Calif.
Cast members Yung Berg, Masika Kalysha and Sincere Show attend the Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood premiere Sept. 9, 2014, in Hollywood, Calif. Jesse Grant/Getty Images for VH1

When I first saw an advertisement for the made-for-TV sequel to the 2002 film Drumline, I assumed that it was airing on BET.

After all, Drumline’s star and one of the executive producers of the sequel, Nick Cannon, has a relationship with BET and is a regular on Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood. Yet around the third or fourth commercial I saw for Drumline: A New Beat, which aired earlier this week, I realized that it was actually airing on VH1—BET’s latest rival for the eyes of African Americans.

VH1, now known more for Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta than its beginnings as a sort of MTV for old people, was initially an unexpected rival. VH1 has gone through a few incarnations, while BET has always been BET: Black Entertainment Television. Yet it’s VH1 that is home to one of the highest-rated reality shows on cable, the aforementioned Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, and is now the No. 1 network in African-American households, followed by BET and OWN.

VH1—which, like BET, is owned by Viacom—started producing more and more African-American reality shows and original programming in the mid-2000s, beginning with the offensive and outrageous car wreck Flavor of Love in 2006. Since then VH1 has been home to several African-American-led reality shows, including Basketball Wives, T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, LaLa’s Full Court Life, Marrying the Game, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood and Atlanta Exes. The network also started producing dramas with African-American stars, starting with the Queen Latifah-produced Single Ladies and continuing with last summer’s cheerleader drama Hit the Floor.

Although BET has produced reality shows, none has ever caught fire like the over-the-top antics of a Mona Scott-Young production or a table-hopping Basketball Wives fight. I wonder, is there a reason for that, and does it have to do with what black audiences expect of BET versus what they will accept from VH1?

For BET, the mid-2000s were marked by complaints from its viewers that shows like BET Uncut, Hell Date and We Got to Do Better (originally titled Hot Ghetto Mess) were not what they wanted, and the grievances were long.

In 2007 We Got to Do Better was singled out for criticism before any episode of it ever aired. More than 5,200 people signed an online petition asking BET not to air the show. Although the show turned out to be not nearly as controversial as some feared, critics tore it apart. BET: Uncut, a raunchy hip-hop music-video offering, ran for six years mired in controversy. Uncut aired Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, which was so inflaming that it caused his charitable work to suffer and led to numerous protests by young black women who accused the network of profiting from a misogynist image.

But probably the most scathing critique came from a cartoon. In 2008 Cartoon Networks’ The Boondocks “went in” on BET’s management and programming, painting them as villains intent on harming black people. In the parody an executive says, “Our leader Bob Johnson had a dream, a dream that would accomplish what hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and malt liquor could not accomplish: the destruction of black people.”

Could this be affecting which shows BET chooses today? Most of BET’s reality shows are not as wild as VH1’s. I asked the network about its programming choices, and Tracy McGraw, BET’s senior vice president of communications, said that viewers know the network “embraces them with quality programming that appeals to them and pro-social initiatives on issues that are important to them.”

But I can’t help thinking that the reason you don’t see bawdier programming on BET is that it did listen to those complaints in 2007 and 2008. And for all the gripes, African Americans do seem to feel some ownership of the network and want BET to stand for the best of us, not the least. Yet VH1, a network that makes a feast off the least, is the top-rated cable network in black households.