LOS ANGELES – On her new VH1 reality dating show, Rozonda Thomas — better known as Chilli from the groundbreaking hip-hop group TLC — doesn’t lounge in bubble baths or hand out fake bling to her suitors. Instead, the 39-year-old singer and mother meets bachelors at black-tie affairs and confers with a dating expert, as well as her 12-year-old son.
The cable network synonymous with “Flavor of Love” and its sleazy spin-offs is trading trampiness for fabulousness with a new slate of series starring seemingly well-adjusted rich and famous black Americans. VH1 executive vice president Jeff Olde admits that the shift from oh-no-they-didn’t fare to more mature material is totally intentional.
“We constantly have to evolve and tell our audience different stories,” he says. “I love that we’ve been able to get more diverse with our audience by — in large part — attracting African-American women to the network. We got them in the door with some shows, and now I’m excited about where we’re going and how we’re telling them different kinds of stories.”
With an April 11 debut, “What Chilli Wants” will be partnered on Sundays with “Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business,” focusing on sibling R&B singers Ray J and Brandy Norwood as they attempt to relaunch their music careers, and “Basketball Wives,” starring Shaquille O’Neal’s ex-wife, Shaunie O’Neal, and five other women with romantic links to basketball players.
For the notoriously trashy VH1, it’s not reality as usual. While cat fights will flare up with the “Basketball Wives” and Chilli promises a tiff with her sassy matchmaker on “What Chilli Wants,” these new shows certainly aren’t selling buzzworthy moments akin to “Flavor of Love” contestants spiting on each other or suddenly defecating on the floor.
“I watched ‘Flavor of Love’ myself,” attests Chilli. “It was definitely one of the shows I thought was interesting, but it made sense for Flav to do it just that way. For me, I wanted to do my show in a way that I would be comfortable with, and I was very happy that VH1 was on the same page with me. They did have a formula that has been working for them.”
Olde dismisses any past criticisms of “Flavor of Love” and its offspring, mostly produced by 51 Minds Entertainment, by calling the franchise ignited by black rapper Flavor Flav and his multiracial harem “big fun romantic comedies.” (Olde confirms that “I Love Money 3,” featuring murder suspect and suicide victim Ryan Jenkins, as well as the Jenkins-free “I Love Money 4″ won’t air.)
Instead of lewd antics from “Flavor of Love” standout Tiffany “New York” Pollard or that toxic spill of “Charm School” women, the network is now interested in transformative experiences from celebrities, such as third season “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino or rapper Sandy “Pepa” Denton from Salt-N-Pepa. The evolution is already proving successful.
Premieres earlier this year of “Fantasia for Real” and “Let’s Talk About Pep” topped that same week’s third season debut of “Celebrity Rehab” and episodes of the seedy dating shows “For the Love of Ray J” and “Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair,” which starred “I Love New York” reject Frank Maresca searching for love from his parent’s basement.
“The new VH1 shows offer a different take on the black reality TV star,” says Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies. “These are images of wealthy black families. These shows may potentially be less stereotypic because they present a different, higher status black image.”
Bill Graff, an analyst for cable media analysis firm CableU, says the strategy isn’t a surefire winner. While the new shows are targeted to an underserved audience, they require more of an investment from viewers, especially if they don’t care about the personal lives of such B-list celebrities as Chilli and Brandy, or any of those “Basketball Wives.”
“It’s a little bit more of a leap for VH1 viewers than ‘Flavor of Love,’ ‘Rock of Love’ and the other shows,” says Graff. “Anyone who watches VH1 definitely knows and is entertained by Flavor Flav and New York. Anyone who is familiar with hip-hop from the past 25 years knows Pepa from Salt-N-Pepa, but they may not necessarily care about her love life.”
It’s not as if VH1 is becoming BET, whose own affluent African-American docu-soap “Baldwin Hills” has been around for three seasons. The majority of VH1 series, such as “Celebrity Fit Club,” “Sober House” and “Tough Love Couples,” feature multiracial casts, as do mainstream network reality shows such as “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor” and “American Idol.” However, the new trio of shows with predominantly black stars will be scheduled together on Sundays.
“It’s strange, because it almost feels like a different type of segregation,” says actor-comedian Victor Varnado, who directed and starred with other black comedians in “The Awkward Comedy Show,” Comedy Central’s offbeat comedy special debuting April 9. “It’s like this is where the black people can watch their black programming on this night.”
VH1’s Olde, however, notes that while the network’s black-centric shows are most popular with African-American women, they attract viewers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. The popularity of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” proved that a reality show featuring a mostly black cast can cross ethnic lines and become a cultural phenomenon.
That doesn’t mean this glitzy new breed is free of the stereotypes that have long plagued cable reality TV shows. Critics point to the continued inclusion of such black stereotypes as the gold-digging woman, the hypersexual and irresponsible man, and cast members prone to raging behavior and violence as a way to gratify viewers’ voyeuristic desires.
“The choices that are made by producers, editors and performers in unscripted television to satisfy these audience desires are deliberate,” says Princeton University’s Perry. “We think we are getting something real, but what we are getting is an effort to satisfy our curiosity and feed our assumptions.”