By Joi-Marie McKenzie
When Evelyn Lozada doubled her salary as the breakout star in season two of Basketball Wives, the news went viral. Reportedly, Lozada threatened VH1, the network responsible for reality shows such as Flavor of Love, The T.O. Show, What Chili Wants, and now their latest addition Love & Hip Hop, to leave the network and hop on another reality show based on her relationship with her new fiance Cincinnati Bengals star Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson.
Instead of losing their break out star, potential viewers, future ratings and advertising revenue, the network coughed up the money. Lozada’s new salary wasn’t disclosed, but industry producers speculate that it’s anywhere between $15,000 to $18,000 per episode. Ladies and gents, welcome to the business of reality television. Where ratings, not quality programming are the network’s bread and butter.
Shows including Real Housewives of Atlanta, Real Chance of Love, Being Bobby Brown, and For the Love of Ray J, had us grimacing and laughing (at not with) Nene Leakes, Real and Chance, Bobby and Whitney and Ray J. These shows failed to offer anything more than a good laugh and a trending topic on Twitter.
But thanks to the millions of people who tune in, reality stars get compensated nicely for their shenanigans and cover-your-mouth drama. The ladies of Real Housewives of Atlanta get paid $30,000 per episode with NeNe Leakes raking in $3.5 million a year and Kim Zolciak taking home $1.5 million for their foolishness. Newcomers such as the cast members of Love & Hip Hop start off making $3,000 to $5,000 per episode until they can prove their worth in the ratings.
Millions of viewers equals high ratings, which in turn equal dollar signs when soliciting advertisers. When Chris Brown performed on Dancing With the Stars, a reality competition, 19 million viewers tuned in, giving the show its highest rating ever. And Real Housewives of Atlanta is Bravo’s highest rated spin off in the Real Housewives franchise, averaging 3.6 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“Everything is a domino effect,” explained an undisclosed cable network producer. “I don’t even think that networks like to do reality shows. Networks like to give the people what they want so we can get the ratings. Everything we do is about the ratings.”
With network executives only concerned about ratings, who is concerned about the way African-Americans are portrayed and perceived on these shows? And more importantly, why do we still watch?
Admit it, when rapper Jim Jones almost yanked that small producer up on Love & Hip Hop, you set up the DVR to capture the whole thing, even rewinding to see it again and laugh. It’s a guilty pleasure and we know that we need to do better.
That said, cable networks also need to provide more meaningful programming, or at least invest in counter programming to provide balance for viewers.
For every 10 reality shows that reinforce negative stereotypes of African-Americans, there are a handful of shows that attempt to offer a different and uplifting perspective. Shows including BET’s The Family Crews and Tiny and Toya along with MTV’s Run’s House, are among the few reality shows that have traded in fights for family.
Still, we only have ourselves to blame. If we want more than petty fights and school yard drama, then as a collective we have to turn off the junk and tap into shows of quality. If not, we’ll be watching another episode of NeNe Leakes scratching at Kim Zolciack in the back of a tour bus.
Joi-Marie McKenzie is the assistant entertainment editor for The Loop 21 and the creator of The Fab Empire, a site that covers entertainment events and celebrities in cities across the U.S. She currently resides in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Afro American Newspaper, Clutch Magazine, NBC New York and NBC Washington. Follow her on Twitter.