College Reality Show Faces Uphill Battle for Respect

Last season, Black Entertainment Television (BET) attempted to capitalize on the popularity of reality television when it unveiled its new show “College Hill.”

Many hoped that the show, which followed the exploits of eight college students at Southern University, would become something like a non-fiction version of the sitcom “A Different World.” When that show debuted in 1987, viewers saw first hand that it really is a different world at historically black college or universities (HBCUs).

“When I saw [A Different World] growing up I just thought it was a good show,” said Ashley Hagans, a sophomore finance major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  “[But] now that I’m at an HBCU, I think that it’s fairly accurate. Of course, it’s a TV show, so things are dramatized, but it feels like an HBCU experience. [There are] Whitleys, Freddys and Kims all here on the yard.”

Though they’ve been in existence for almost 150 years, few people truly understand what life at a historically black college or university is like.  People with ties to them tend to say that it is an experience like no other.  Unfortunately, people who are foreign to the HBCU experience have not been able to turn to television to find out what it’s all about, unlike many other facets of life.  The producers of “A Different World,” among them Bill Cosby and Debbie Allen, tried to capture that experience for viewers.

The show, which began as a spin-off to “The Cosby Show,” was lauded by critics for tackling issues facing students on black college campuses in a realistic manner.  Though it was a comedy, the show touched on issues ranging from domestic violence, to ending apartheid, to time management to the financial burden of higher education. 

“The show had everything,” Kiola Campbell, a computer information systems major at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga., said. “You could see that even though it was a black school, everyone wasn’t the same. The way everyone was in ‘The Pit’ is how we are in our student center.  The characters were friends from the beginning, which is also realistic, because the people who you start out with are most likely the people that you stick with through the whole four years.”  

After one season, “College Hill,” which hits the airwaves for a second season Jan. 27, a week from today, seems to be having a tough time escaping “A Different World’s” shadow.

“[College Hill] focused so much on the stereotypes that they were portraying that it missed out on the richness of HBCU life,” Hagans said.  “A lot of people already perceive HBCUs as being full of rich, stuck up kids, like that girl, and then having characters like the little fast girl and the pregnant girl just reinforced these stereotypes that people have about black [students]. Not that this isn’t reality for some people, but I just felt like they could’ve shown more things going on, or showed more interaction with other types of people.”

Hagans is not alone in that assessment. Several students at HBCUs across the country, like Jennifer Brown, have said that the first season of College Hill left something to be desired.

“I thought it brought out the worse parts of HBCUs,” Brown, a senior Spanish major at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., said. “I don’t think all HBCUs are like that.  ‘A Different World’ was more accurate. I can walk around campus 15 years later and still see things happen exactly like they did on the show, and not just because it was filmed on this campus.”

Of course, everyone does not feel College Hill did not give a real depiction of black college life.  In fact, some said that they felt it was even more authentic than “A Different World.”

“I think the time factor has something to do with the differences [between the shows],” Tiffany Wheeler, a senior education major at Albany State University in Albany, Ga. said. “We are talking about a show that is almost 20 years old.  I think ‘College Hill’ is more realistic though. It showed the stuff that really goes on at HBCUs.  People had real issues going on; the stuff that we really deal with.  It had the type of drama that we face.  We get into arguments and we want to call each other names.”

Wheeler said she feels that “A Different World” painted an idealistic picture of HBCUs in the name of recruiting. 

“On ‘A Different World,’ people were upset, separated for awhile, and were back to normal by the end of the show,” she said.  “They didn’t show problems with financial aid and everyone knows that to be at an HBCU, you have to have problems with financial aid.” 

The ratings for “College Hill’s” second season will be interesting, because several of those who said they were excited when BET first announced the show said they are not holding their breath for any significant change in the show.  A few, like Hagans, said they probably would not be tuning in at all.

“I won’t watch unless I’m really bored,” she said. “I didn’t hate the show. I just felt disappointed because it could’ve been so much better.”

For her part, Brown said she would watch, but probably not for the best of reasons.

“I’ll probably watch, but just for fun,” she said. “We all love to laugh at ourselves.”