Hot Ghetto BET

Does a black television network have a responsibility to do better?

Don't like it? Get over it.


This is how this kind of thing gets started. In Austin, Texas, 31-year-old blogger Gina McCauley, an African-American lawyer, notices that BET is scheduled to debut something called Hot Ghetto Mess in its summer lineup. She adds it to her online roll call of dishonor, which she launched in April in a post-Imus outrage. Angered by the media's attacks on the image of black women, McCauley has named her project "What About Our Daughters?"—despite the fact that she doesn't actually have any daughters. Or sons.

McCauley generated enough heat over BET's plans through her blog that it was noticed by Janis Mathis, vice president of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. With a week left before the debut of Hot Ghetto Mess, Mathis called McCauley, telling her she wanted to mediate some kind of agreement between the blogger and the television network.

Mathis tells the Voicethat she's been a longtime critic of Sumner Redstone's property. She has picketed outside Viacom's Times Square offices in the past, and she even confronted Redstone at a shareholders' meeting. She says he responded that BET was making good money, and why mess with success?

Telling McCauley that she had access to high-level executives at BET, Mathis went to work, trying to convince the network that in McCauley it had found a formidable adversary. And sure enough, two days before Charlie Murphy's first appearance, BET announced that the show's name had been changed.

McCauley, however, doesn't sound mollified. "People who say, 'If you don't like it, don't watch it,' they are ignorant of social behavior," she says. "This show puts poor people up for public ridicule. However much you hate the way they live their lives, it's dehumanizing to put it in the form of a show for people to watch. I don't want to pay for it, which is why I'm encouraging people to boycott the advertisers who do run ads during the show."

McCauley is getting remarkable results for a lone blogger, but she's only the latest in a long line of critics of a cable network that's never been able to shake the misperception that it intended to be all things to all black viewers in the first place.

Robert L. Johnson, the African-American businessman who created BET in 1980, went to pains explaining that the "E" in the name stood for entertainment, not education. But that didn't keep him from at least throwing a bone to groups that wanted BET to be some kind of black PBS. In 1986, Johnson formed a news division, which was responsible for public-affairs programs like Our Voices, BET Tonight, and Conversations with Ed Gordon.

"We won NAACP Image Awards and were nominated for an Emmy for O.J. Simpson's first interview after his acquittal in 1996," says Gordon, who today hosts Our World with Black Enterprise, a public-affairs show on TV One, the only other black cable network. "We were doing stories that no one else was doing anywhere, and those of us who were there should be proud of what we did."

News was expensive, however, and music videos were cheap. Increasingly, the news division lost real estate, the videos took over, and Johnson learned to care less about the complaints over substance.

"Johnson overcame the angst of having BET be a moral compass early on, when he became a hard-driving executive," says Brett Pulley, author of The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of BET. "Debra Lee felt that angst, and it was a constant source of tension when they talked about programming issues. They could have been worth even more than $3 billion [when Viacom bought BET in 2000] if they had stronger programming. What Viacom got was access to the coveted African-American demographic."

African-Americans are the biggest consumers of cable television per capita, spending upwards of $3 billion a year. BET is available in 84 million homes, making it a valuable advertisers' gateway to the black consumer, who spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

No doubt, there's lots of money to be made. But while BET languished after its Viacom purchase by relying on raunchy music videos played ad nauseam, VH1 and MTV began to eat the network's lunch. With shows like Flavor of Love, I Love New York, and Flavor of Love: Charm School, VH1 began stealing black viewers away from BET in droves.

Getting back an audience that had run to a show featuring shapely young women out-slutting each other for the affections of a lecherous former rapper known for wearing a clock around his neck would not, it was clear, be an easy task.

image
Before: Donnie Simpson and Sherry Carter (with Vanessa Williams) on the set of Video Soul
photo: BET Networks


"We Got to Do Better is a success," says Reggie Hudlin, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. The show's debut in late July was watched by 750,000 households, a gain of 11 percent for that time slot from the year before. "The reality is that there is a distortion effect with the Internet. A few small people can appear to be an army. There is no doubt that this is a controversial show. Those who are against us think that we shouldn't criticize black people, but by criticizing us, they are criticizing black people."

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