Music television hasn’t looked like music television in quite some time—just ask anyone who watched MTV in the '90s. But this isn't just a tired remark about a single network. For VH1, the veering away from music television has a different meaning. Originally an MTV sister network peddling soft rock to an older crowd, the cable channel has moved from producing generic pop culture programming to greenlighting shows that target a specifically black demographic.
That shift began in 2006, with Flavor of Love, a reality dating show starring Public Enemy's Flavor Flav. It instantly became a huge ratings success. Later that year, Flavor of Love 2 piggybacked on its predecessor's foundation and set an all-time premiere ratings record for the network. It was the most watched cable program in its 10 p.m. Sunday time slot, averaging 3.3 million viewers per episode. Flavor of Love 2's season finale pulled in a whopping 7.5 million viewers; meaning, according to PR Newswire, one in every three black consumers watching TV that Sunday night were tuned into VH1.
This didn’t go unnoticed. Flavor of Love's success immediately spawned the spin-off I Love New York! in early 2007, headlined by former Flavor of Love contestant Tiffany "New York" Pollard. Unsurprisingly, I Love New York! broke the premiere record previously set by Flavor of Love 2 only five months earlier, drawing in 4.4 million viewers. By April, there was already a second Flavor of Love spinoff on the air: Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School. Adding to the post-Flavor Flav hit streak, I Love New York! received a second season in 2008 and later produced its own spinoffs: New York Goes to Hollywood, New York Goes to Work, and Real Chance of Love.
VH1 was making a play for black viewers.
According to Nielsen’s 2013 State of the African-American Consumer Report, 37% of African-Americans watch TV—more than any other racial group—and the current buying power of the African-American consumer is over $1 trillion, with forecasts predicting it will reach $1.3 trillion by 2017. A different Nielsen report from 2011 states that black viewers have the highest rate of total TV usage, an average of seven hours and 12 minutes each day.
VH1's current programming reflects the network's desire to take advantage of its success among African-American viewers. The most recent VH1 Rock Docs were Hip Hop & the LA Riots and ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. Last October, the original biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story scored 4.5 million viewers and set Twitter ablaze. And earlier this year, VH1 ran brand developer Steve Stout’s mini doc series, The Tanning of America. Black programming, or programming with predominantly black casts that cater to an African-American viewership, has taken over VH1.
"I didn't start to really notice the change until Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta's first season," says Danielle Belton, a writer and social media consultant who comments on television regularly on Twitter. "I was not a regular VH1 watcher and I'd assumed incorrectly that the New York version of Love & Hip Hop was on BET. I hadn't realized yet that the reality shows my friends were talking about were all on VH1 and Bravo. After I started watching Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta it clicked. I thought VH1 had accidentally stumbled upon a black viewership and were acting without real coordination. But after Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta it became very clear that VH1 wanted black viewers. This effort was coordinated."
Of course, these shows aren’t exclusively entertaining to black audiences, but they’ve had a hand in boosting black viewership. When comparing two different VH1 network profiles from 2007 and 2011, the white viewership dipped from 76.32% to 50%, while the black viewership soared from 11.21% to 40%. Those are dramatic shifts that illustrate a trend: There's a direct correlation between the increase in black programming, the increase in black viewership, and the subsequent decrease in white viewership.
"I would guess VH1 did this because it needed an identity," says Belton. "As music videos waned, VH1 had to decide how to rebrand. VH1 was largely personality-free until Surreal Life debuted and started the chain of reality shows its rolled out. Now, VH1 is still a slightly more mature MTV, but an MTV that clearly knows black people watch television and they want to compete for those viewers. It made sense to do this, considering the only other networks targeting African American's completely are their sister network BET and TV One."
After more or less neglecting African-American viewers for most of its earlier run, VH1 has started to exploit the lucrative consumer base, boosting its primetime numbers to all-time highs with programming that caters specifically to the target demographic. When the network unexpectedly struck gold with Flavor of Love, it slowly shifted its focus and prioritized black shows for ratings, which suggests that black programming can be profitable and that investing in it will bring about returns.
The VH1 programming guide is now dominated by shows starring predominantly black casts, including Love & Hip Hop (and all five of its spin-offs), T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, Basketball Wives (and Basketball Wives LA), Atlanta Exes, Single Ladies, and Black Ink Crew. Furthermore, since 2008 VH1 has added films like House Party, New Jack City, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting To Exhale, Love Jones, and Black Knight to its schedule.
VH1 still produces other programs that cater to audiences outside of the black demo, but the black programming is crushing those shows in the ratings. Mob Wives, for instance, one of the network’s most popular shows without a primarily black cast, consistently won its 8 p.m. Sunday time slot in 2012, averaging 1.1 million viewers. That same year, The Family Hustle, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, and Basketball Wives all beat out those numbers with averages of 1.5 million, 1.8 million, and 1.7 million, respectively.
After more or less neglecting African-American viewers for most of its earlier run, VH1 has started to exploit the lucrative consumer base, boosting its primetime numbers to all-time highs with programming that caters specifically to the target demographic.
When comparing the live-plus-same-day numbers of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta (3.6 million average), Love & Hip Hop (3.1 million average), and Basketball Wives (2.1 million average) with Mob Wives (1.2 million average), Candidly Nicole (531 thousand average), and LeeAnn & Eddie (370 thousand average), the shows with predominantly black casts double, and in some cases triple, the ratings of their non-black counterparts. One more example: I Heart Nick Carter premiered to just under a half million viewers in September, while Love & Hip Hop Hollywood premiered to 5.3 million viewers that same month.
The historical context is key here. VH1's strongest shows in 2005 were Hogan Knows Best, The Surreal Life, Strange Love, and Celebrity Fit Club, none of which featured largely black casts, and the most successful of which (Hogan Knows Best) premiered with numbers that its current shows now average (1.9 million).
It’s a new age for VH1.
Recent comments from VH1 executives have implied that they aren’t exactly happy about this trend. Earlier this year, Susan Levison, VH1’s executive vice president, told The Hollywood Reporter, "The goal is to bring a general market audience back into the fold in addition to servicing our African-American audience," which is a not-so-subtle way of saying that the new black programming has driven the original VH1 audience away. The network’s five biggest ratings draws in 2013 were Love & Hip Hop (3.3 million), The Family Hustle (2.2 million), Marrying the Game (2.1 million), Hit the Floor (2.1 million), and Basketball Wives (1.9 million).
The momentum hasn't slowed down in 2014. Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta's third season drew 5.6 million viewers in May, while Tiny & Shekinah’s Weave Trip premiered in October to 2.2 million viewers. On Monday, October 21, VH1 shows were only beaten out by ESPN’s Monday Night Football and USA’s Monday Night Raw. The data suggests that VH1 is struggling to connect with audiences outside of its current market.
VH1 may even be on the road to going head-on against black television powerhouse BET. In 2012, though still winning the black demo by a wide margin, BET began to see a ratings decline just as VH1 was making major gains with its black programming. VH1 responded by adding even more black programming. It’s now only a few paces behind the leader in black entertainment. Forbes reports that VH1 is up 20% in primetime among adults 18-49, and is driving advertising revenue for its parent company, Viacom. In the end, Viacom, which owns both media properties, is the real winner.
Black programming will continue to play a role in VH1's future. But in what capacity? Can the network find the happy medium between the easy-to-produce, black-targeting programs that have made it so successful and the programming that established its identity in the late-'90s through the mid-2000s, the programming its executives seem to want back? Only time will tell. But the numbers don't lie, and there may be no turning back now.
As they say, once you go black, you never go back.
Sheldon Pearce is a contributing writer for Complex Pop Culture and an editor at Earmilk.