Monday nights belong to Love and Hip-Hop.
The series has been among the highest rated reality TV programming since it debuted in 2011. Its popularity is in large part because audiences can’t put their phones down while the fake proposals, abortions, nude photo leaks, arrests, side chicks, secret marriages, and sex tapes unfold in front of them. Every Monday, #LHHMIA, #amaralanegra, #CreepSquad, #RemyMa, and #JamesR take over the trending topics on Twitter.
The premiere of the newest iteration of the franchise, Love and Hip-Hop: Miami, on January 1 garnered 430,000 social interactions, making it the number three program of the day according to Nielsen’s Social Content Ratings, just as Love and Hip-Hop: New York’s season 8 premiere in October beat out The Voice for social media supremacy. And in the 2016-2017 TV season, Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta was the most talked about cable reality series on Twitter and Facebook and the second most talked about cable series overall (behind The Walking Dead), according to Nielsen.
The drama of Love and Hip-Hop is built for that kind of commentary—a tool VH1 has understood since the fun fact speech bubbles of Pop Up Video in the ’90s and the snarky talking heads of the I Love the ... franchise and Best Week Ever in the ’00s. As The Ringer’s Victor Luckerson pointed out in a 2016 article on the network’s second screen successes, their next step was creating content primed to make its audience the commentators. And that’s exactly what Love & Hip-Hop, VH1’s longest-lasting current reality programming, is.
“In terms of the way television is watched, developed, and produced, what the black audience has done on social media has affected all of that,” says Sherri Williams, an assistant professor in race, media, and communications at American University. “It’s helped to birth the social television industry all around.”
Source: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. As of 1/24/2017.
Superfan and social media personality André Kendall has watched the entire Love and Hip-Hop franchise from the beginning. “I’ve never not watched the show,” said Kendall, who any respectable Love and Hip-Hop fan knows as KendallKyndall on Instagram. “Everybody likes to have their moment of ratchetness, whether they’re ratchet or they’re watching the ratchetness.” One night in late 2015, the 30-year-old Flint, Michigan native, who was getting a degree in mass communications at the time, was doing homework and had Love and Hip-Hop: Hollywood on in the background. Suddenly, something made him burst into laughter and since he lives alone, he felt compelled share. “I did a video. It took 15 seconds and I woke up the next day and I had notifications everywhere,” Kendall said, noting his Instagram followers went from 700 to 2,500 overnight. Now, he has more than 1.2 million.
The Love and Hip-Hop franchise, created by former hip-hop manager Mona Scott-Young and seasoned TV producer Jim Ackerman, started with the New York iteration. Originally about rapper Jim Jones, producers and audiences soon recognized that his longtime girlfriend Chrissy Lampkin and her friends were the real stars. By 2012, audiences were treated to the aptly-titled spinoff Chrissy & Mr. Jones and Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta (which has since spawned K. Michelle: My Life, Stevie J & Joseline: Go Hollywood, and Leave It to Stevie). The franchise headed to Hollywood in 2014 before landing in Miami this year. That’s a whopping eight series in all, not to mention the birthing, wedding, and holiday specials along the way.
Tapping into a diverse audience
“Reality television is where black people are most prominent,” says Williams. “I think it is natural for almost any show that features black folks to have high social engagement.”
Not only do black millennials spend more time watching live and time-shifted TV than total U.S. millennials by 61% per week, according to Nielsen, but black adults also spend the most amount of time per week on social media of any consumer demographic. And it seems like a good chunk of that time is spent in the form of tweeting, recording reaction videos, making gifs, posting emojis, and creating memes about the largely black casts of shows like Scandal, Empire, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and the Love and Hip-Hop series.
Lynessa Williams — an account executive at Transform PR who studied how black audiences are changing television — explained that providing commentary is ingrained in black culture. “Kitchen table talk has always been something that was heavily embedded in our community,” she said. “We like to joke and have these conversations. So to connect with a group online about that just seems like the perfect place.”
Though DVRs, On Demand, and Hulu made appointment TV viewing obsolete at one time in the not too distant past, the opportunity to watch a show while contributing to a rapid-fire feed of fierce commentary online brought it back. And having the stars of those shows participate only sweetens the pot, something Kerry Washington famously understood when Scandal premiered in 2012.
There is, however, a key difference between scripted and unscripted television. “When people are watching Scandal, they’re watching Olivia Pope, but they’re tweeting with Kerry Washington,” Sherri Williams explained. “But if I am watching Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta and I see how Karlie Redd pretty much fell out when Lyfe appeared to be proposing to her but basically offered her an empty box, it’s Karlie Redd commenting on herself and her real-life experience.”
‘A faucet that never turns off’
VH1 gets in on that social engagement too. The network has encouraged audiences to create memes that could wind up on the official website, vote in polls that crop up during commercials, and share photos with the #CheckYourSelfie hashtag for a chance to be featured during re-airings of the episode. “If I am a viewer and I’m probably going to be tweeting about the show in the first place or posting about the show, now there’s an incentive for me to do it because potentially, whatever I post could end up on the network’s website or on television,” Sherri Williams said. “And not only just my wit, my creativity, and my humor, but also my Twitter handle. And that could potentially get me more followers.”
VH1 also drives viewers to their app for behind-the-scenes footage and to live after-shows on Snapchat. In 2015, Tom Chirico, VH1’s then-vice president of digital and social marketing, told Digital Trends, “Love & Hip Hop has really been highly embraced by social media, and the producers have looked to social as a way to help drive the production of the show itself. … They’re actually using social popularity to inform the show.”
As Lynessa Williams noted, “There have been cases where situations will happen offline and off-camera and producers will go and pursue those people involved in maybe an altercation or a situation and try to get them on the show because of the attention that it generated online and through social media. … It’s just like a faucet that never turns off.”
The Love and Hip-Hop franchise has also very carefully curated its cast members. Producers have brought on people who already have social media followings and will bring their followers to the show. “The television industry is really tapping into black viewers’ social engagement to look at, ‘Who should we cast on the show? Who already has a high social media presence? Who not just has a presence, but who actively engages with their audience in a way that is witty and interesting and how can we capitalize on that? How can we translate that humor, that engagement on the mobile screen and bring that over to the television screen?'” Sherri Williams explained.
Take Love and Hip-Hop: New York alum and history-making rapper Cardi B, the franchise’s biggest success story. “Cardi B already had millions of followers before she even joined the cast,” Sherri Williams said. “I’m sure the producers understood that her large social media following could potentially bring some of those eyes on over to television and also television of course would raise her visibility with a new audience.”
Careers from commentary
For the newest iteration of Love and Hip-Hop in Miami, audiences have seen some familiar names with big social media numbers, like Trina, who has 2.3 million followers on Twitter, but could use a bit of a career revival. “It’s an opportunity for them to reinvent themselves and they’re fully aware of that,” Lynessa Williams said of Trina and fellow Love and Hip-Hop: Miami star Trick Daddy.
“Trina and Trick Daddy are both not just hip-hop royalty in the south, but hip-hop royalty period. So for both of them to be cast on the inaugural season is something that I can definitely see helping the show,” Sherri Williams pointed out, noting that fellow Miami star Amara Le Negra also already has a big social following. “When I saw that she was going to be cast on this show, I thought, OK, this makes perfect sense. A good number of those people who follow her are going to tune in.”
What plays out on television with the Love and Hip-Hop franchise is really just the beginning. For viewers to get the full experience, they need to be following along online both with the stars and with the fans. “There are people who have built careers just off of the commentary on these shows, so they’ll watch the show and I’ll watch their commentary on it,” Lynessa Williams said, pointing to KendallKendyll. “There are definitely times where I’ll watch him and not watch the show because, you know, after you’ve been watching for so many seasons, you get the gist. … I think the social engagement is the driving force.”
Kendall, who may be a bit biased, says he’s bringing people to the Love and Hip-Hop franchise. “Some people say they only watch it because I’m watching it,” he said. “They want to keep up with what I’m talking about because they’ll laugh at my videos, but watching it too makes it that much funnier.”
Kendall’s an example of the cottage industry of influencers shows like LHHMIA create. He’s hosted Facebook Live shows for Love and Hip-Hop: Hollywood and Love and Hip-Hop: New York. He’s also done red carpet coverage for BET and social media for TNT’s Claws. In October, he left his job in human resources in Detroit, moved to Los Angeles, and is planning on taking hosting and acting classes.