When you’re a network not known for your scripted properties, you have to work extra hard in order to prove yourself to viewers. In this age of Too Much TV, good programming isn’t enough to get people to pay attention, so networks are now charged with finding ways to stand out from their contemporaries and make people trust them. That trust, which can be extraordinarily difficult to repair once breached, can be the difference between a stable scripted slate with a long money making tail and a series of shows cycled through the schedule with seemingly no chance at traction. It’s a tricky situation because while networks do (and should) make business decisions that benefit their bottom line, the early days of getting into scripted can’t only be about dollars and cents. To see real progress in your scripted brand, you have to make people feel less apprehensive at sampling projects from networks they don’t normally look to while treating the projects that get on the air with an extra dollop of respect.
From James LaRosa (Spring Break Shark Attack), VH1 basketball soap Hit The Floor premiered in May 2013 to solid ratings that climbed a majority of its 10-episode first season. Something of an All About Eve on a basketball court, the series follows aspiring dancer Ahsha Hayes (Taylour Paige) as she tries out for and makes the Los Angeles Devil Girls, a dance team supporting the Los Angeles Devils professional basketball team. Though she’s thrilled at living her dream by getting to dance professionally, Hayes soon sees the ugly side of the glamorous-from-the-outside world of sports, as she bumps heads with headstrong captain Jelena Howard (Logan Browning) while coming across obstacles that threaten to knock her back into the life she left behind. That twisted web of secrets, scandal, and sex helped the show carry its season one momentum through a second season, only for VH1 to put the show on an almost 2-year hiatus for no discernible reason. Understandably, the show did a little worse upon its return, thanks to the changing TV landscape and a later time slot, and now, with a one-hour special designed to tie up loose ends, looks to be on its way out the door.
But this isn’t the first scripted show to stumble under VH1’s watch, as both of VH1’s recent scripted dramas have also met their untimely fates in annoyingly unnecessary ways. The network’s first foray into scripted drama was Single Ladies, a soap that focused on the lives and loves of three female friends in the Atlanta fashion industry. After three successful seasons, somewhat compromised by behind the scenes drama, the series was unceremoniously cancelled by VH1 before being resurrected by Viacom sister network Centric for a poorly regarded six-episode final season. Debuting after Hit The Floor was Hindsight, a romantic dramedy that told the story of a 40-something who finds herself sent back 20 years in order to correct the personal and professional mistakes of her past. Though the series was poorly rated, it brought VH1 a good amount of positive press and critical attention, something that all networks looking to get into scripted television crave. This was the type of project to legitimize VH1’s attempts at scripted television, but following a change in leadership, the network revoked the show’s March 2015 renewal that same August. Therefore, being a ratings juggernaut isn’t enough for a decent run on VH1 if you’re a scripted show, nor is being a critical darling, which makes both their scripted brand and their renewal standards all the more difficult to decipher. It’s such a dangerous precedent to set, having their first three scripted dramas fall apart, because eventually, the number of people willing to sample a VH1 original scripted drama might not be enough to sustain it even the three seasons that Single Ladies and Hit The Floor got. Granted, cancellations are a necessary evil in the television universe, but not knowing what constitutes a cancellation on a network can make investing in their scripted properties more difficult; with all the options that exist in the TV universe, why give any of your time or attention to a network whose decision-making seems arbitrary at best?
All this makes it difficult to see where the treatment of Hit The Floor is coming from. The third season finale garnered a 0.64 in the 18-49 demo and 1.2 million total viewers, giving it over 75% retention from its lead-in (K. Michelle: My Life) and putting it #2 in its time slot with the Women 18-34 and Women 18-49 sub-demos. Those are down from the 2.37 million viewers and 1.1 demo rating for the season two finale, but those numbers happened in August 2014, an eternity ago when looking at the television industry and VH1’s standing as a whole. Not only was season three of Hit The Floor coming amidst a well-documented Viacom crisis, it eventually helped the network post its highest quarterly ratings in six years, so while the show might not be the powerhouse it once was, it’s still more than healthy considering its age, the troubles VH1 has had at 10:00, and its nearly two-year hiatus. While the show has never been critic bait, a combination of its subject matter, network, and full-on embrace of soapiness, it more than makes up for that with its social media presence, as it was the #1 trending topic on Twitter the night of the third season finale and currently possesses strong follower counts on both Twitter (62K) and Facebook (444K). Aside from the Love & Hip Hop franchise, which has become the building blocks of the network in recent years, no show on VH1 gets the type of buzz that Hit The Floor does, so couple that with solid ratings and the fact that it’s VH1’s only current scripted show and you have to wonder what exactly this show needed to do in order to secure a fourth season. Especially considering that very few cable drama launches this year (e.g. The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Greenleaf, a very front-loaded Shadowhunters, a Walking Dead-fueled Preacher) have been above the 0.64 that Hit The Floor got for its finale, so whatever comes after it very likely won’t have the same type of performance. If something that does better than every show not immediately following a Love & Hip Hop incarnation has to claw its way to a(n unconfirmed) wrap-up special, how much hope does any scripted show in development have of finding a foothold on such a reality-heavy network and in such a fractured television environment?
Most galling, though, about the way VH1 has been handling this situation is the fact that they themselves essentially confirmed the end of Hit The Floor by including star McKinley Freeman in the recent casting announcement for Daytime Divas. A straight-to-series scripted show that takes place behind the scenes at a View-esque talk show, Daytime Divas is set to begin principal photography this month in Atlanta, so it’s understandable for VH1 to push out a press release touting the show. But including the romantic lead from a show you’re currently airing (and haven’t officially cancelled) feels like a sign that not only is the show done, it doesn’t garner enough respect for the network to at least pretend it’s still alive until after it airs its one-hour special. Freeman isn’t the only Hit The Floor cast member to get attached to another show, as Logan Browning is already confirmed as a series regular on Netflix’s Dear White People, but his casting is more terminal for the show (and said announcement more disrespectful) because of his relationship to the main character. As great a character as Jelena Howard is, and as great as Browning has been at portraying her for three seasons, the entire special is centered on the character being gunned down, so it makes sense that the shot she took would be fatal and Browning would move on. At worst, her casting announcement was an unfortunately timed spoiler that didn’t necessarily spell the end of the show, whereas removing the romantic lead from Hit The Floor, the character the show fought so hard to put beside Ahsha, and not even bothering to wait until the special aired is a death blow to whatever hope there was of the show returning. It’s not as if this announcement was out of their hands and they were forced to deal with news getting out earlier than they wanted; this announcement was done by them, which shows how much of an afterthought Hit The Floor has become for a network it performed so well for.
Not only is this not the best message to send your audience (e.g. even if you watch something and engage with it socially, it’ll still be cancelled), it’s a strange time for said message to come out. VH1 has two scripted shows (Daytime Divas and hip hop-focused The Breaks) in the chamber, so they’re going to need to leverage their audience in order to get both properties sampled. The best way to get shows sampled is to establish a relationship with the audience where they know their time and attention is valued, that something they watch will be treated respectfully. Networks don’t have to interminably renew shows long after they become creatively and financially destitute, but if you’re trying to establish yourself in a field where you’re not primarily known, going above and beyond in order to show audiences that you’re making an effort to evolve your identity certainly helps. Cycling through shows and cancelling projects that are performing in the ratings and socially breeds the type of viewer apathy that means absolute death in television. The worst thing you can be in today’s television industry is forgotten and VH1 is running that risk with scripted audiences by keeping every project they pick up to series on a fairly short leash. For VH1 to rise to the forefront of viewer’s minds when looking for something scripted to watch, and for their reputation as a place solely dedicated to trashy reality television to subside a little, they’re going to have to build a trust with the audience that they’ve demonstrated they’re incapable of. By mistreating a strong ratings performer in Single Ladies and a critical darling in Hindsight along with Hit The Floor, they’ve shown audiences that scripted content is very low priority on their network and that unscripted shows with lower buzz and lower ratings will receive the type of preferential treatment not reserved for their scripted counterparts.
With so many networks attempting to carve out a scripted brand, networks like VH1 can differentiate themselves by how they handle the projects that make it to air. Scripted success breeds scripted success and while no network has a 100% perfect track record when it comes to treating their shows well, networks not known for scripted have a smaller margin for error because they have no viewer good will. An HBO or a Showtime can make a boneheaded decision and retain their audience because viewers have had years of quality scripted content that’s been treated, for the most part, fairly well by them, whereas a VH1 has to work to produce the type of good will that can excuse a poor cancellation. Starting from zero and falling back when it comes to viewer perception isn’t difficult to do and unfortunately, with what will be the strangest cancellation in a summer full of them (e.g. Penny Dreadful, The Jim Gaffigan Show), VH1 simply hasn’t done enough to warrant loyalty from scripted viewers. Instead, they’ve fallen behind the Bravos, E!s, and OWNs of the world when it comes to establishing themselves as a place for scripted content, as each network, with a similar target to VH1, has successfully nurtured their flagship shows and found ways to keep content on the air with less buzz and lower ratings than what Hit The Floor put up this past season. Eventually, there’s going to come a time when some networks are going to get out of the scripted game; viewers can only have so many options and there are only so many experienced executive producers and showrunners to go around, so the sheer volume of original scripted series will have to dissipate some. When that time comes, the networks that retain a scripted presence will be those who honed an audience that trusts them and knows that every scripted show that they premiere has a shot at establishing itself. As of right now, VH1 will be on the outside looking in.
Hit The Floor: Til Death Do Us Part airs Monday, September 5th at 9:00 on VH1.