By Keisha Allisse
Back in the mid-nineties, two networks were launched, the WB and UPN (years later they would merge to form the CW). Their initial lineups were nothing short of exemplary diversity. While other networks (maybe with the exclusion of FOX) used obvious tokenism to add a splash of color to their evening programming, the WB and UPN regularly had shows with predominately African-American casts; some of which were good (Moesha, its spinoff, the Parkers, the Steve Harvey Show) and others (The Wayans Bros, Homeboys in Outer Space)…not so much.
The fledgling networks build their audience (and revenue) on the backs of such shows until they could find and launch a crossover (read: white) success, a series that would catapult them into the bigger leagues garnering bigger advertisers, and hopefully, bigger audiences. For the WB, it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Sarah Michelle Gellar; for UPN, Veronica Mars with Kristen Bell.
The arrival of rave reviews from mainstream critics usually precedes the ushering out of non-white shows, however, the contrary seems to be happening on VH1 where they’ve debuted programs like Fantasia For Real, Let’s Talk About Pep, What Chilli Wants and most recently, Basketball Wives. While the shows aren’t above the usual muckrake that is reality television, they at least offer more diversity within the racial spectrum than their fictional counterparts. For instance, after years of airing on ABC, we have yet to see a non-white Bachelor or Bachelorette; in a few years, VH1 gave us For the Love of Ray J, I Love New York, Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch and the granddaddy of them all: Flavor of Love.
Yes, perhaps thanks for the spike in African-American oriented programming ultimately belongs to he of the gold-toothed, clock wearing visage. The initial installment of Flavor of Love was a ratings hit for VH1 becoming its most watched show ever. And from this series sprang all the other so called celebreality shows we’ve come to ‘love’: I Love New York and its spinoffs, New York goes to Hollywood and New York goes to Work, Rock of Love, Real Chance at Love, Daisy of Love, et al.
The popularity of Flavor of Love ignited the desire to duplicate its success, not just in the same genre (romance and matchmaking), but expanding to include sports (the T.O. Show, Football Wives, Basketball Wives), music (Love & Hip-Hop, Brandy & Ray J, the Salt N Pepa Show) and eventually, scripted television (Single Ladies).
Whether or not the boom continues remains to be seen and while reality show quality has historically been dubious in nature, it’s nice to know that black people on VH1 are being given the same opportunities as white folks to make fools of themselves.