Hot Ghetto BET

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

It's a clever construction, turning back the network's critics upon themselves. And you get the feeling that it's the kind of thing Hudlin was hired for: to take the fight to BET's critics, after he'd spent years being one himself.

A Hollywood player, Hudlin was behind several popular black movies (House Party, Boomerang) and mainstream films (The Ladies Man, Serving Sara). He was also known for publicly criticizing the network that became his employer. He says he couldn't stand the poor production quality of shows like Madd Sports, the music-video show Cita's World, or BET UnCut, which featured soft-porn videos at three in the morning.

"I have to respect Debra Lee's integrity to go to a person who is a known BET critic and say, 'If you think you can do better, step up to the plate.'"

image: BET Networks

Hudlin hasn't wasted his opportunity to shake up the network's lineup. In April, he revealed that he was adding 16 new shows that would debut into early 2008—double the amount of shows he'd introduced in 2005/2006, his first year with BET. And he plans on plenty more change as well.

"BET is the biggest black media company in the world. We're in 84 million households—that's a big sphere of influence. . . . I know that transforming a network—both the programming and the corporate culture behind it—was a marathon, not a sprint," he tells the Voice. "Years from now, when the network has transformed and become the channel I want it to be, people will realize that BET has changed."

As for the criticism that Hudlin has only brought higher production values to a network that was already focused on bad black behavior, the producer is unmoved. "Black youth culture has always been shocking and offensive," he says. "It's raw, sexual, counterculture—that's our culture, and it's never celebrated at the time of its height. For those people who hated Richard Pryor then but love him now, hate Beyoncé but love Tina Turner—I have no time for them."

Still, as much fun as it is to laugh at ghetto behavior, it's hard not to wince at the thought that estimates of BET's white audience run higher than 30 percent. A constant refrain among critics is the cry of "dirty laundry." Shouldn't BET clean up its act for the white folks tuning in?

"White people don't know about this?" Hudlin asks. "They've never seen us wear inappropriate clothing or adorn our cars with spinning rims? If you spend your life worrying about what white people think, you are a slave.

"One of the things that's so frustrating is that we are launching the largest aggregation of black programming in television history, and everyone ignores that to focus on a show they haven't seen because it has a controversial title," he says. While We Got to Do Better is reveling in bad behavior, BET has also debuted Baldwin Hills, a spin on MTV's Laguna Beach, but set in the black middle-class section of Los Angeles. Instead of complaining, Hudlin says, "Why not champion the black kids who want to go to college?"

'We have the glorious burden of being the biggest black network out there," says Stephen Hill, BET's executive vice president of music programming and talent, who's been with the network since 1999. "People are emotional about BET. It's tough being all things to all people. I don't have a problem defending BET, except when someone comes up to me and asks, 'Why does BET suck?'—and tells me that they don't watch it."

After: The young hosts of 106th & Park, Terrence J. and Rocsi
photo: BET Networks
If Hudlin and Hill are unapologetic about the young audience they're going for, at least some of the pressure on BET to reach other groups has lessened with the 2004 launch of TV One, part of the black-owned Radio One empire.

"We take BET graduates and introduce them to adult content," says TV One's CEO, Johnathan Rodgers. His network is available in half the number of homes as BET, but last year was one of the fastest-growing channels on cable. "Look at the landscape: African-Americans need choice. People thought that you have BET and that's enough. Hopefully, [black cable networks] can reach the level of Hispanics and nonwhites who have choices. We don't," says Rodgers.

For the teenagers hanging around out- side the CBS studios on 57th Street for up to three hours recently, that choice isn't a tough one. They're beginning to panic when it becomes clear that BET's video countdown show, 106th & Park, already has a full audience.

Determined to get inside, one girl pushes through to the security desk to complain. She says that she's been waiting since six in the morning. The security guards, mostly black men in their thirties and forties, are unmoved: They've clearly heard it all before. In the holding area, no larger than half the size of a subway car, buzzing kids occupy every inch, some seated on the floor, some sharing chairs, and most huddled by the doors ready to jump to the front of the line when they are finally escorted upstairs to the set.

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