Music's New Secret Weapon? WE Tv

The tiny cable network has become a surprise outlet for R&B acts, helping break hits and bring Grammy noms

WE tv, the cable channel owned by AMC Networks, is giving an unexpected boost to female R&B acts with a slate of urban music-themed reality programs designed to appeal to the lucrative 25-54 African-American female demographic.

The small cable and satellite channel has four programs that showcase female R&B singers, including "Braxton Family Values," the hit show about Toni Braxton and her singing sisters that recently was renewed for a fourth season. Additionally, WE tv gave a second season to "SWV Reunited," a program that chronicles the comeback efforts of '90s trio Sisters With Voices. Rounding out the network's R&B lineup is "Tamar & Vince," the 2012 spinoff of Braxton Family Values that features one of the Braxton siblings, Tamar, and her husband, Streamline Records founder Vincent Herbert, and "Mary Mary," which stars the award-­winning R&B/gospel duo of the same name.

The broadcast exposure has lent an unexpected hand to R&B -- a genre that of late has been overlooked by mainstream outlets. For the Feb. 27 season-three premiere of "Mary Mary," WE tv pulled in 958,000 viewers, a 62 percent increase over the show's season-two premiere, according to Nielsen. "SWV Reunited," whose first-season finale aired Feb. 20, averaged 1.2 million viewers per episode. "Braxton Family Values" and "Tamar & Vince" have posted viewership boosts each year, ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Back in the public eye thanks to "Braxton Family Values," Toni recently debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with "Love Marriage & Divorce," a collaborative effort with Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. The set, which also hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200, was her first new project since 2010. Similarly, Tamar was able to relaunch her solo career after a 13-year pause with the release of "Love and War," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums in 2013. The recording also earned three Grammy nominations. Erica Campbell, who along with sister Tina Campbell make up Mary Mary, is the latest WE tv star to tap into her network exposure win big, releasing her first solo album, "Help," on March 25. "Help" sold 23,000 copies in the week ending March 30, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"WE tv has created this niche with very familiar names attached to shows that resonate with its audience," says Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, a New York-based media services company. "Everyone is trying to lock on to something that will give them a ratings home run."

The R&B-focused format of the four WE tv shows -- following urban artists who confront personal issues and professional challenges while pushing forward with their careers -- is being used by other networks as well. Cable rival TV One has had success with "R&B Divas" while VH1 has rolled out "Love & Hip-Hop." The musical backstory to the shows is critical to their appeal, but for the programs to succeed, they need to build on that interest, says WE tv president/GM Marc Juris. "When it's just about someone making a record, you lose that emotional involvement."

In and of itself, an R&B hook is no guarantee a show will resonate with an audience. The Lylas, for example, chronicled the musical aspirations of a new female singing group whose four members are the sisters of Grammy winner Bruno Mars. The show averaged just 146,000 total viewers, according to Nielsen, and WE tv declined to renew the program for a second season. The act's two singles sold a combined 10,000 units.

For WE tv executives, the issue was less about the success of "The Lylas"' music than the fact that a show only succeeds if viewers connect to the stars. "It's the artists' personality that counts most," says Juris. "Some come alive onstage but are dull offstage. It's always great characters first, not just the format."