Reality in Tune With Viewers

R&B and hip-hop music have changed the tune of the reality genre as shows featuring successful, recognizable and often outspoken music stars climb the cableratings charts.

Shows like VH1’s Love & Hip Hop, WE tv’s Braxton Family Values and TV One’s R&B Divas have found an audience among young viewers — and African-Americans in particular — by showcasing the behind-the-scenes lives of popular past and present hitmakers who were previously only known for their songs.

Executives said the drama and intrigue that follows the lives of a Toni Braxton, Erica Atkins-Campbell or K. Michelle — along with the music they create — provides a successful one-two punch that has struck a chord with viewers.

“The characters in the [R&B and hip-hop] genre are definitely larger-than-life characters that have big personalities, big aspirations and live pretty large, which is all great for television and storytelling,” WE tv president Marc Juris said. “It is character driven, and the music is the articulation of the stakes.”

While the music plays an important role in drawing fans who are familiar with an artist’s hit songs, it’s the personalities of the performers themselves — and their struggles in dealing with personal and business relationships — that have captured viewers, D’Angela Proctor, senior vice president of programming and production for TV One, said. The network’s R&B Divas: Atlanta and spinoff series R&B Divas: Los Angeles — about R&B singers including Angie Stone, Keke Wyatt, Chante Moore and Michel’le, who are looking to build or resurrect their careers — are the African-American-targeted network’s most watched shows.

The singers’ collaborations as they work on projects together often leads to heated disputes and disagreements, but also showcases their hard work and the less glamorous aspects of their off stage lives.

“Of course, you hear the songs on the radio, but you really want to know what’s behind the curtain,” Proctor said. “Up to this point, there was really no opportunity to get to know our R&B talent on a personal, oneon- one basis.”

Given hip-hop and R&B’s influence on pop culture, some of the performers on these shows have transcended the reality space and become cultural touchpoints themselves. Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta stars Mimi Faust and Nikko Smith made headlines with the release of a self-produced sex tape that went viral and became a leading storyline when the VH1 show’s third season premiered last month.

Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta is averaging 3.6 million viewers thus far in 2014. The original Love & Hip Hop series also remains among VH1’s top shows, averaging 3.5 million viewers.

A third music genre-based series, T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, has also drawn big numbers for VH1, averaging 2.4 million viewers in its fourth season.

“We’re kind of peeling back some of the drama and life stages that people go through, and because of that people appreciate that amplified approach to storytelling in the music space,” VH1 president Tom Calderone said. “If the personality is there and if a compelling storyline is there, it should make for a good recipe for good TV.”

WE tv’s Thursday-night lineup is given over to music-themed reality series including Braxton Family Values, about the R&B music family; Mary, Mary, following Grammywinning gospel duo Erica Atkins-Campbell and Tina Atkins-Campbell; and SWV: Reunited, which showcases the reunion and comeback of the 1990s female R&B trio.

The keys to these shows’ success — all three series are averaging more than 1.1 million viewers this year — has been the combination of characters viewers can identify and relate to, and music that’s familiar to the audience, Juris said.

“For someone like Toni Braxton, who had a great story going in, we knew that she was having some financial trouble and we knew she had some great hits that we all loved,” he said. “Her life was fascinating because we knew there was a story that was running parallel to her music. Her music is what makes you connect to her, but it’s the story that holds you.”

The music alone won’t draw an audience without a star’s compelling personal storyline. “You will never fool and audience — if your goal is to sell a record, your show will fail,” Juris said. “Audiences want shows, stories and characters that they care about. If your goal is to tell a story, your show will succeed.”

Cherie Saunders, TV editor of black entertainment news website, said musical elements can only sell the show if the performers come off as authentic.

“It’s entertaining to see the groups that you’ve grown up on and liked and to sing their songs, but I think the authenticity of the personalities within those groups is the most important thing,” she said. “The drama that is inherent in their relationships has to be authentic — whether it’s positive or negative — and I think that’s what draws people to reality programming in general.”

In Tune for June

June is Black Music Month, and several cable networks will celebrate with a number of reality series premieres, specials and documentaries honoring and showcasing iconic soul music stars as well as up-and-coming artists. Here’s a partial list of programs highlighting the celebration:

June 2-15

Main Stage (Music Choice On Demand):

Music-video content from R&B stars Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott , Charlie Wilson and Tank

June 11

The Message (BET):

Four-part documentary series

June 14

Super Bowl Celebration of Gospel (Centric): Special

June 15

Marian Anderson Lincoln Memorial Concert (Centric): Special

June 16-29

Main Stage (Music Choice On Demand): Music videos from emerging acts Sebastian Mikael and P.J. Morton

June 21

Top 25 Black Movie Soundtracks (Centric): Special

Aretha: Frankly Speaking (TV One): Special

HelloBeautiful Interludes Live: Trey Songz (TV One): Special

June 29

BET Awards (BET): Special


Music Choice will spotlight the upcoming Essence Music Festival in New Orleans with videos featuring performances from R&B singers such as Tamar Braxton, K. Michelle Mary J. Blige, Sevyn Streeter and Trey Songz.

Throughout the month, Aspire will air “ASPiRE Jam Session,” a series of vignett es featuring acoustic musical performances from such artists as Joe, Avery*Sunshine, Clinton Babers II and Mr. Sho’Nuff.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.