The season finale of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta garnered record ratings for VH1 — 6.5 million people tuned in, tying the series with NFL pre-season coverage and once again solidifying VH1 as a leader in reality television. It’s interesting that VH1 continues to turn to majority Black casts for success in reality programming, a strategy that seems a better fit for its sister station BET.
Despite being owned by the same company, BET hasn’t been able to capture the success VH1 has seen in reality television. It seems like the network is scared to attempt anything groundbreaking. The history of criticism of BET’s portrayal of African-Americans is a long one. Ever since Bob Johnson sold the channel to Viacom in 2003, BET can’t seem to get on the good side of its target audience.
The channel saw moderate success with the series College Hill, the closest BET has come to getting their strategy for reality television right. Seasons three and four brought record ratings at the time, though they’re dwarfed in comparison to Love & Hip Hop’s numbers. We won’t even talk about Baldwin Hills and Harlem Heights,” the network’s shows chronicling the lives of the young and the attractive (and let’s not forget the boring). They don’t make a blip on the radar of Mona Scott-Young, the creator of the Love & Hip Hop franchise.
BET’s other strategy for reality television is to follow around celebrities. Keyshia Cole, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, Toya Wright and even skateboarder Terry Kennedy have lent their lives to BET’s lens. Offering a sneak peek into celebrities’ lives sounds like a gold mine. But the stars they choose don’t have the influence to bring in overly impressive ratings.
Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is set a record as the number one series telecast in BET history with more than 2.9 million viewers tuning in for the show’s season finale. Again, Mona Scott-Young is unbothered. Keyshia Cole is famous and had a platinum album at the time, but her star power alone doesn’t translate to blockbuster ratings.
What’s BET missing? Aesthetically, VH1’s shows look better. You can tell they are putting more money into production. More than that, VH1 isn’t afraid for their characters to look bad. Almost every show on VH1 depicting African Americans has been met with calls for boycotts. But, while the network is receiving petitions, they are simultaneously pulling record-breaking ratings. It’s a mixed message BET has never experienced.