If you haven't watched VH1 in the last five years, you will be in for a major shock. Not only is the channel radically different — it is looking more like BET of old than MTV — but the network introduced to offer grown folks an alternative to MTV seems to have disappeared into thin air. The channel that used to boast iconic deejays, performances by legendary artists and smart programming for hip viewers who had aged out of MTV's teen and young-adult market appears to have sold its soul to the devil for ratings.
In 1985 VH1 was introduced as the sister station to MTV, offering a more mature approach to pop music. The network focused on a greater variety of musical genres and programming that spoke to a more musically sophisticated demographic. The network gave us Don Imus (who later traded in his rock-jock status for shock-jock dividends), Rosie O'Donnell (before the many talk shows geared at housewives and middle America), Frankie Crocker of WBLS fame, Jon Bauman (Sha Na Na) and Scott Shannon of Z100 fame.
Viewers tuned in to VH1 to watch artists ranging from Madonna to Melissa Etheridge, the Human League to New Edition, Anita Baker to Phil Collins, Toto to Kool and the Gang, the Miami Sound Machine to the Jets, Janet Jackson to Kim Wilde, Spyro Gyra to Steve Winwood, Herb Alpert to Sade and Roy Orbison to Lionel Richie. Viewers were guaranteed high-quality music and programming, which squarely set the network apart from sister station MTV and indirect competitor BET (prior to Viacom's acquisition of the company).
New Visions featured videos and live in-studio performances, Pop-Up Video offered pop cultural trivia throughout the music videos and VH1 Storytellers promoted artists who performed and interacted with audiences. Rockdocs and the smash hit Behind the Music gave viewers an intimate look into the lives of artists in a behind-the-scenes format placing relatives, industry executives and fellow artists on equal footing as experts in the making of a particular artist or band.
In addition to programming, VH1 established the Save the Music Foundation in 1997, a nonprofit organization created to help ensure that music programs remain in public schools. When other stations were heavily promoting male artists, VH1 introduced VH1 Divas, reminding viewers of the musical prowess of female artists like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Cyndi Lauper, Deborah Harry and Chaka Khan, to name a few.
As I remember the fabulousness that was VH1, at least in my mind, it pains me to see what VH1 has become in an apparent effort to capitalize on trends in programming and chase ratings. The reality of the dominance of reality programming hits home each time I attempt to watch what's left of quality programming on the network.
While watching the Behind the Music featuring legendary rapper Nas, I was appalled when previews of Basketball Wives showed Jennifer Williams being assaulted by wannabe bad girl Nia Crooks, assistant to Williams' former BFF Evelyn Lozada. It also looked as if Lozada literally ran across a table to confront Williams, this after brandishing a wine bottle to attack another castmate in a previous episode.
Why in the heck is VH1 showing and promoting this level of violence? I watched the episode in which Williams was attacked by Crooks. I could not believe my eyes and quickly remembered why I stopped watching this show — it represented the very worst of "friendships" between women.
Basketball Wives is not the only culprit. Mob Wives is just as bad, with Drita literally fighting her way in and out of conversations, and each woman trying to one-up each other in thuggishness. You've got women duking it out on Love and Hip-Hop, DMX mentally destroying his wife on Couples Therapy and La La Vasquez trying to drum up drama where there is none on La La's Full Court Life.
I really didn't think the programming could get any worse than Flavor of Love, Real Chance of Love and For the Love of Ray J, but miraculously, the programming is as bad, if not worse, with the escalating levels of violence between the women. Let's not forget Single Ladies, which has some of the worst writing, storytelling and acting on television. It's official: VH1 has officially fallen off.
I know that ratings are paramount to a network's success, but does quality have to go completely out the window?
Viewers of color pined for more people of color on television for decades. We now have more people of color on television than ever before, and most are acting like damned fools. Who needs Jezebel when you've got Evelyn Lozada, coons when you have Flavor Flav, tragic mulattos when you have Emily Bustamante and Kimbella, and black bucks when you've got Chad Ochocinco? How did a network that launched on New Year's Day of 1985 with the video of Marvin Gaye's legendary rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fall so far from grace?
I know the answer: a shifting demographic, competition from new-media programming, more robust programming on other cable networks and trying to maintain an identity within a major conglomerate (Viacom) that oversees many networks that are doing well (MTV, Comedy Central, BET, Spike and Nick at Nite) — but does the quality of the bulk of the programming have to be so low?
Not all of the programming on VH1 is bad, but a lot of it is really bad, and that's a problem. Thank goodness for Styled by June, which is refreshingly sane, or VH1's reality programming would be a complete wash. And that is truly a shame.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.