Mona Scott-Young: VH1’s Reality Superstar

Music Exec-Turned-Producer Mines Hip Hop for Ratings Gold
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Monami Entertainment is one of the hottest reality-series production companies on cable. The company’s Love & Hip Hop franchise — including VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, Love & Hip Hop: New York and Love & Hip Hop After Party Live, as well as its series K. Michelle: My Life — all finished among the 30 top-rated reality shows over the past year, according to Ratings Intelligence.

The driving force behind Monami’s television success is Mona Scott-Young, the CEO and a veteran music executive. Scott-Young, who still represents top music performers such has Missy Elliott, has created an potent, female-skewing reality programming niche that combines celebrity with hip hop music and culture that has turned into ratings gold for VH1.

Scott-Young spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the success of the Love & Hip Hop franchise and the opportunities today’s multiplatform distribution environment provide for content producers. She also addresses her critics who say her brand of reality content depicts African-American women in a negative light, as well as the controversy last December surrounding VH1’s Sorority Sisters, a show in which she only served as a casting consultant, according to VH1, but was still criticized for the show’s negative portrayal of African- American Greek letter organization members.

MCN: How have you been able to transfer you success in the music business to a successful run as a reality series producer?

Mona Scott-Young: I came into this from my experience in music. I spent 26 years as a music manager and navigating the entertainment and music industry. I spent many years getting to know my clients and figuring out how to help them reach the heights of their success. So I think part of it is my ability to interact with folks and not necessarily get into their heads but understand them.

So if I had to credit something it would be the fact that people are willing to open up so freely and share and give of themselves. They feel a connection, and that connection — when we get it right — I think is what the audience feels as well. That’s what captivates them and keeps them coming back week in and week out.

MCN: Having said that, what’s the secret behind the ratings strength of Love & Hip Hop?

MSY: There certainly is a constant desire for fans to know more about the celebrities and to get a bird’s-eye view and pull the curtain back. That was the basic premise — to show that all that glitters isn’t gold. From the outside, there is this incredible sense of aspiration, but the reality of it is, it’s all relatable to the audience. They fall in love and get their hearts broken; they get cheated on — they’re not exempt from the roller-coaster ride we call life. So there was an aspirational element to showing this world that people are fascinated with, but then there was the need to show the inner workings of it, so people understood what motivated some of the actions that we read about in the blogs and see in the trade magazines. They have real lives, even though they are celebrities.

MCN: Given all of the traditional and new distribution platforms available, is this a great time to be a new, unscripted series producer?

MSY: I would say absolutely yes. I came into this straight out of music — I had done a show years back with Missy Elliot [2005’s The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott] — but now to be able to step into an arena without the experience or the résumé, yet to have been given this opportunity, has been great. Also, there are so many mediums that are popping up that are affording an opportunity for different areas of distribution. This, for me, was an opportunity to take my career and my personal abilities and skill set into a different area. The room for potential growth was exciting, but when you see everything that’s developing with regards to digital and mobile content and the way they’re intersecting, that’s an exciting place for me to be, because I like to explore new territories.

MCN: As I mentioned before, you’ve been very successful in the reality arena, but you have had some detractors who’ve said that shows like Love & Hip Hop often depict negative images of African- Americans in general and women in particular. What do you say to those folks?

MSY: I say, who defines what those images should be? How do you tell somebody who is living their life as they see fi t that they’re not doing it correctly? For someone to say “you’re not living your life the way that I think you should” is a pretty bold-ass statement to make to somebody, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel qualified to ever do that. I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone.

This is reality television — we are shining a light on a specific segment of people who are living in this microcosm called the entertainment industry, and anybody who’s really been part of it knows that the things that we see play out in the show actually do exist and do happen. It’s easy enough for us to feel like sweeping it under the rug and making believe it doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean it will cease to exist. It’s like saying that they don’t have a place on television and their stories don’t deserve to be told. Who makes that judgment call?

So I try to do this as much as I can without judgment, and it is a process. I’ve heard it all, including that this is not the proper representation of black people. Well, no one said it was a representation of all black people. It isn’t reflective of the life I live, but I can co-exist. There’s room for us all on this planet and we all come with a variety of experiences that shape who we are and what we do. I think there’s enough of that variety on television.

MCN: Were you surprised at some of the negative reaction to Sorority Sisters?

MSY: I think I was more taken aback because there was so much going on [in the African-American community] during that period of time. I felt the focus was misdirected. I understand where the passion came from, but it was disheartening and it certainly clarified for me the fact that, as a black woman producing television, the playing field is not level. What was alarming was that no one cared if my name did not appear on the credits; the perceptions were formed and it took off like wildfire. Just to see people form an opinion about something that they knew nothing about was alarming and disappointing.

MCN: Do you view as positive the number of successful scripted and reality series featuring predominately African-American images and stories that are currently on cable networks?

MSY: I’m thrilled that people are being given the opportunity to tell those stories. We are not monolithic, and I don’t think any other race or gender has to subscribe to that. There are all kinds of shows that cater to the general market audience, but there’s an expectation with regard to anything we put forth. I’m not naive and I understand the responsibility that we have in terms of how we are perceived, but I also believe that we have a responsibility to be true to who we actually are.

I do credit the popularity of the shows for giving a sense of relatability that people have when they watch it because they recognize the people that they see on the screen. It might not necessarily be them, but everyone can say I know this person. The sooner that we embrace everything that we are — the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and the complex — the better we’ll be for it. I would love to be able to see content creators develop other projects that show the full range of who we are. I’m developing a scripted project and a fi lm project, and both of those are currently in preproduction and development.

Monami Entertainment is one of the hottest reality-series production companies on cable. The company’s Love & Hip Hop franchise — including VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, Love & Hip Hop: New York and Love & Hip Hop After Party Live, as well as its series K. Michelle: My Life — all finished among the 30 top-rated reality shows over the past year, according to Ratings Intelligence.

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