Race and Reality: The Quiet Success of the Black Unscripted Boom

Ramona Rosales
NeNe Leakes

Docuseries catering to African-American audiences -- like "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and "Love & Hip Hop" -- are ratings titans, so why aren't they getting the credit?

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Race isn't exactly a preferred topic of conversation. Perhaps that's why there has been so little chatter about one of the biggest trends in television. Reality shows with predominantly (or entirely) African-American casts now are among the biggest hits on cable. But as offerings that are driving ratings highs increase on such broad-skewing unscripted hubs as VH1 and Bravo, one marker goes ignored: Most of the viewers are black as well.

Bravo's The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the crown jewel in its flagship franchise, swelled to a network-best 4.6 million viewers in February. The current season, one of the top five nonfiction series across all of cable, skews overwhelmingly African-American, at 68 percent. "I think you're seeing the viewership increase because of more opportunities for African-Americans to see themselves and their experiences reflected back to them," says Starcom MediaVest Group executive vp Esther Franklin, who researches media and consumer habits of African-Americans and other minority groups. "I don't see it extending on broadcast, but this will continue to play out on cable."

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Call it the Tyler Perry effect. The multihyphenate's successful move into TV, first at TBS and now OWN, reinforced the fact that there is a hungry African-American audience to be tapped outside of traditional black-targeted networks. And it's an audience with money: The National Association of Broadcasters projects African-American buying power rising 25 percent to $1.2 trillion between 2010 and 2015. Still, there long has been a disparity between advertising revenue for white viewers -- black audiences still command smaller rates for networks. Perhaps for this reason, networks remain careful not to outwardly identify the trend, but their slates speak for themselves. Bravo beefed up on Atlanta spinoffs (three to date, including one starring breakout and Dancing With the Stars castmember NeNe Leakes) and debuted two other Atlanta-set series with predominantly black casts over the past year. "What we're trying to do is make programming that appeals to people, and they come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds," says Bravo senior vp current production and original programming Shari Levine.

"There's more opportunity now, but a lot of it is that there's so much more reality," says Real Housewives' Leakes, photographed backstage at Dancing With the Stars' CBS Studios in Los Angeles on March 24. 

The women of Atlanta might be the biggest hit in black reality at the moment, but they hardly are alone. VH1 has had exceptional success with Basketball Wives, Love & Hip Hop and respective spinoffs. VH1's offerings -- which it airs on a targeted Monday primetime -- skew even more black than the Housewives. A whopping 85 percent of the series' current audiences are African-American. The Viacom-owned net, which started aggressively courting African-Americans with the 2004 Hip Hop Honors awards show, previously had smashes in more sordid fare like the Flavor Flav dating competition Flavor of Love. The next phase for VH1 sees it expanding past the recent successes of celebrity-driven and female ensemble series into male-focused and workplace reality. "It's important to make sure that the audience who comes to Monday night is seeing new ideas and new formats," says VH1 president Tom Calderone, who launched the docuseries This Is Hot 97 on March 31. The newcomer, about the New York City hip-hop radio station, gets a lead-in from the similarly male Black Ink Crew.

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Hot 97, like Love & Hip Hop, comes to VH1 from one of the few African-American executive producers working in the current wave. Monami Entertainment CEO Mona Scott-Young, who segued into TV in 2005, says it now makes up more than 75 percent of her boutique entertainment company's business. "It's opened the doors, and people want to hear what I have on the slate," says Scott-Young, who has sold to Bravo and has multiple series in development. "I think there's a real interest in African-American culture overall. It's an underserved audience."

Diversifying the offerings, as many insiders see it, is the crucial next step. Celebrity-driven efforts -- see WE tv's Braxton Family Values, just renewed for a fourth season -- seemingly are immune from exhaustion, but formats like Housewives eventually tend to fall to Earth, ratings-wise. And there always is the cloud of concern over reality's penchant for sensationalism. Fighting is commonplace on all Real Housewives series, and Love & Hip Hop Atlanta found itself the subject of unfavorable publicity with the nonfatal March 29 shooting of castmember Benzino -- allegedly the result of a family feud. "I think it's a double-edged sword," cautions Franklin. "While the community is excited to have these series, I think it's going to be a challenge to make sure they stay in touch with the needs of the community so that this generation of programming doesn't become the new generalization."