Remember the ''real'' housewife named Sheree? Whose only claim to fame is that she was once married to a professional football player? Remember how she yanked housewife Kim's blond wig and called her white trash outside of a fashionable Atlanta restaurant? (Kim, the sole Caucasian Atlanta ''housewife'' whose married lover's checks allows her to pay $3,000 on a regular basis to get the fat rolled from her thighs.)
Across the reality-television spectrum, there have always been women like Sheree and her ''friends'' on Bravo TV's The Real Housewives of Atlanta: catty, materialistic, self-absorbed. But are television executives really only interested in black women when we're acting a fool? And more importantly, are we really only interested in seeing ourselves portrayed in this light?
Apparently so: Last month, VH1 dominated the list of top 25 cable shows in black households for reality original programming, returning with the all new Basketball Wives ranked at No. 5. (Like Housewives and Tiny & Toya, the show features ex-girlfriends and wives trying to make names for themselves on the heels of relationships with famous men.) What Chili Wants followed in popularity at No. 7, and Brandy & Ray J came in at No. 11. Executives say that their channel has had a 9 percent increase in black women prime-time viewers ages 18-49 in this past year alone with the success of their reality shows.
TV One also made its first showing on the top 25 list for original programming last month when LisaRaye: The Real McCoy came in at No. 16 and delivered the biggest audience in the network's six-year history. (TV One will roll out two more original reality shows in 2010: one starring reality-show villain Omarosa as a bachelorette and the other spotlighting R&B entertainers K-Ci and JoJo as they struggle with sobriety.)
BET's Tiny & Toya has consistently ranked high in black homes—so much so that a new show featuring Toya is in the planning stages for 2011.
For some, the fascination is hard to understand.
Last season, for example, it seemed impossible to escape from drug-addicted mothers on BET's Frankie and Neffe and Tiny & Toya.
''We get e-mails asking, 'Why are we showing that,''' said James DuBose, executive producer on both shows. ''I always say … it's OK to show the dark side as long as you have a purpose.''
To say that drug addiction doesn't exist, wouldn't be presenting these stories authentically, explained Charlie Jordan Brookins, vice president of programming operations for BET. But in the case of Toya, ''we're showing that despite her upbringing, she's rising above her circumstances. She's writing a book. She's trying to get her love life back together. She's seeking counsel with people who will help her … She's not letting her mother go.''
Maybe not, but as Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP has pointed out, seeing actor Dennis Haysbert as president of the United States on the successful Fox TV series, 24, may have helped to set the psychological stage for Obama's victory.
''I wouldn't want to say that what you're seeing on [The] Real Housewives of Atlanta is emblematic of everything that black women are going through,'' said Andy Cohen, senior vice president for original programming and development at Bravo. ''But when you put four women under the microscope, then you're somehow portraying issues that a whole lot of black women can relate to. It's fun,'' he added, emphasizing that the show isn't meant to be taken seriously. ''It puts a smile on my face.''
Last fall, I spent time speaking with a number of network executives. They all assured me that things might be changing for black women characters in the new season. Story lines on VH1 and BET would emphasize less petty conflict and more of the daily struggles of black women: being mothers, looking for romance, healing family relationships and striving for lasting careers.
''It's a new brand initiative,'' BET's Brookins told me. ''We have a new president of programming [Loretha Jones came on board in late 2008] and half of us are mothers. So … the shift is coming from a very honest place. These are shows that we believe and want to see.''
Similarly, new VH1 shows like Let's Talk About Pep, starring Sandra Denton of Salt-n-Pepa fame and What Chilli Wants, featuring Rozonda ''Chilli'' Thomas from the R&B vocalist group, TLC, aren't about competitions, or a group of people living together in a house under pressure, said Jeff Olde, executive vice president of original programming and production for VH1.
I was curious to see if the reality would live up to network hype. So recently, I took a random sampling of the new shows to see how this season was shaping up: On VH1, Brandy was having a shouting match with both her brother and her business manager. True, there was no hair-pulling or cursing. But still. Later, several basketball wives made clear their mutual dislike for one another and a preview of the next episode promised an actual physical fight.
LisaRaye was more civilized: a brief confrontation with her daughter about a bottle of alcohol she found in the trunk of the car quickly blew over and ended with kisses.
Of course, there will always be drama on reality shows. In fact, some reality cast members have claimed that producers often fuel tensions and physical confrontations by putting cast members in situations where they may be sleep and food-deprived—and where alcohol flows freely.
''When you sign on to do a train-wreck show, you have to deliver that,'' says D'Angela Proctor Steed, executive producer of Sunday Best, a gospel competition reality show on BET. ''And I do think producers cross a line in order to make the train wreck bigger, or to make them happen faster.''
''That's not what we're doing,'' countered Jeff Olde of VH1. ''We don't have that intention.''
''If it happens organically,'' however, ''then it's real life.''
Kristal Brent Zook is an award-winning reporter and author in New York and associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University.