“Welcome back to Hot Ghetto Mess,” says Charlie Murphy, as the comic and brother of Eddie launches another segment of what may be the most masterful example of bullshitting on television today.
Murphy deserves some sort of award for the (mostly) straight face he keeps as he tells his audience that the video clips we’re about to see contain some kind of uplifting, educational message. To reinforce his point, the comedian is wearing something resembling a smoking jacket on a set that’s supposed to evoke a drawing room, or at least someone’s idea of an environment of “class.” Murphy, in other words, is in a place outside the ‘hood, or perhaps above it, looking down.
Then the videos take over, which is really why we’re watching. Oh, look—there’s a white prostitute wrestling with her black pimp on a street somewhere. She’s apparently trying to keep him from kicking someone’s ass in broad daylight, and then that someone hauls off and decks the pimp. Boy, is his whore pissed!
Video No. 2 is a rollicking good fistfight between two African-American ladies. As one drives the other’s head into the back fender of an SUV (ouch!), we hear onlookers explain that they are fighting over a man who is serving time in jail. Won’t he be proud!
The next clip shows us two young women taking turns slapping the other in the face with surprising ferocity: They’re competing for show tickets at a radio station. This gets old fairly quickly, but thankfully it’s replaced by something better: yet another catfight, this time with a woman getting pounded who happens to be drunk and pregnant. How ghetto!
Now for the payoff: Murphy is back, and it’s time for the most cynical sermon since Jerry Falwell breathed his last.
“How can we fight the power if we’re fighting each other?” Murphy asks.
Yes, folks, BET’s new show is really all about its message. It’s right there in its title: We Got to Do Better.
“I just wish we didn’t have so much material,” Murphy says, with all the sincerity of Hugh Hefner uttering the words “I just wish we didn’t have so many breasts to photograph!”
Of course, we’ve seen this before. Every videoclip television producer, fearing the wrath of censors and advertisers, apparently feels compelled to apologize for showing us what we really wanted to see in the first place.
In BET’s case, we get Murphy telling us that his show is a “guide how not to act.” But we know that’s crap. Like the website the show is based on, hotghettomess.com, we’re drawn to it because there’s nothing like a video of a hooker cold-cocking her pimp. You just don’t see that every day.
We Got to Do Better is one of five new shows that debuted this summer as part of another major transformation for the 27-year-old Black Entertainment Television. The last came in 2000, when the network was purchased by media giant Viacom and moved its studios from Washington, D.C., to New York. But hopes that the move would mean more investment and better production values faded as the channel devoted more time than ever to ass-shaking music videos.
Last month, the new shows debuted. By then,This time, BET was supposed to get things right. With the endorsement of black moralizers (it’s been rumored that even Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey weighed in), BET’s CEO, Debra Lee, took a chance on a new entertainment president, production veteran Reggie Hudlin. New shows were planned. There would be less emphasis on music videos and reruns, and more shows and series were purchased as well as produced in-house. And in the wake of the Don Imus debacle, BET watchers were even hearing chatter that the network would be riding the new emphasis on “decency.” Finally, BET would be a network that all black people could be proud of.
Hot Ghetto Mess had kicked up so much controversy that the network changed its name at the last minute, but not in time for Murphy to be retaped—We Got to Do Better still shows its host constantly referring to the program by its old name.
And after an episode ended on a recent Sunday night, D.L. Hughley came on in another of the new shows, titled S.O.B. (for “Socially Offensive Behavior”). The night’s opening segment in this latest twist on Candid Camera, Hughley tells us, is about interracial dating, and will feature a black man picking up a white woman in front of several unsuspecting black women at a bar—and doing it while complaining loudly that African-American ladies are “Nubian nuisances.” Imagine their outrage!
“A player wouldn’t mind dipping into snow once in a while,” Hughley explains with a grin.
It’s hard to imagine that this is what Winfrey had in mind.
Naturally, the new shows have raised a hue and cry from the usual suspects, black groups that somehow never run out of outrage over what’s playing on BET.
Truth is, however, that Hudlin is sort of a genius. And the new shows? Kind of addictive.
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 Voice that 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.
“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.”
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.'”
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.”
“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.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.
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.
Named for the location of its original Manhattan studio, 106th & Park is the most successful legacy from BET’s first programming upheaval. In 2001, after the BET studios had moved to New York, the network went after a younger audience. Hosts in their thirties were replaced by hosts in their early twenties. Dark sets were livened up with bubble-gum pink, yellows, and neon lights. Skirts got shorter and pants hung lower. BET went for hip instead of mature.
The most successful show to come from that reincarnation (and one of the few still on the air) was 106th & Park. The daily Top 10 video show has been a consistent money maker; advertisers are pitched on the chance to reach millions of teens with cash to spend on cell phones, sneakers, music and video games.
As Hill observes: “106th & Park allowed us to really define our demographic. This business we are in is about catering to a niche. Every other cable channel was doing that except for BET. We all agreed that the best way for us to go was to target 18- to 30-year-olds.”
Today’s show is jam-packed. There are nine live performances, including by Kanye West, T-Pain, and Plies, and six amateur groups battling it out in an r&b installment of “Wild Out Wednesday,” a weekly talent competition. Kanye’s performance includes a string mini-orchestra. It’s the first time ever that there’s been a harp on the 106th stage. The audience, meanwhile, sings along to every word.
“BET damn near raised me,” says current 106th & Park co-host Terrence J. “BET is the black voice, and it is entertainment. 106th & Park transcends all age ranges,” he adds, though no one in the audience looks over 22.
“I’m from Virginia, and I’ve been waiting outside for three hours,” says Toya, 19. “I had to see my baby, Chris Brown.”
Asked about the network’s new offerings, the mostly young women waiting for the show to start said that, hands down, they loved the new shows.
“Hell Date is mad funny,” says a girl wearing fishnet stockings on her arms. The show pairs unsuspecting daters with actors who make the outing a wild adventure.
“At one point, BET did get a little boring,” yells one girl from the top seat on the mini-bleachers. “All they played was videos. It’s much better now.”
“I know I shouldn’t, but I like Hot Ghetto Mess,” says a young woman named Michelle. “It’s funny.”
This month, at its annual convention, the National Association of Black Journalists bestowed a “Thumbs Down” award upon BET for perpetuating negative stereotypes. Ironically, the BET news division was awarded two “Salute to Excellence” awards, for an original news feature and a special on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, at the same convention.
“At NABJ, our booth was packed with young reporters and producers who wanted to know what opportunities we have,” says Keith Brown, vice president of news. “I think they see BET News as a way for them to get a voice for once.”
Meanwhile, more new shows are on the way. If Gina McCauley and Rainbow/PUSH didn’t like
We Got to Do Better, they’re going to loathe BUFU. An animated sketch-comedy series debuting this fall, the show is hosted by former MADtv actor Orlando Jones. In one clip, a sketch called “Who Needs They Ass Whopped?”, a thirteen-year-old mother, with kids in tow, is a contestant on a game show. Her goal is to listen to three men and find out which one is telling the truth about being a good-for-nothing baby daddy. The contestants include an NBA player who can barely speak properly, a smooth playa dressed in a suit, and a European ballplayer who doesn’t speak English. Social commentary on the decline of the black family structure? Yes. Slightly offensive? Indeed. Funny? Absolutely.
Another series goes right at the divide between BET and its critics. Titled Hip Hop vs. America, the show is a three-part town- hall meeting.
“There seems to be no bigger hot-button issue than rap lyrics,” says Hudlin about
Hip Hop vs. America. “People are more interested in it than three kids being executed in Newark, or the woman who was gang-raped in Florida.”
In the show, Nelly—the poster child for hip-hop’s ills after his video for “Tip Drill,” which included a shot of him swiping a credit card in the crack of a bikini-clad woman—is among the most vocal panel members. The backlash against his video, he says, prevented him from holding a bone-marrow search for his ailing sister, who eventually died from leukemia. “I wanted to have a bone-marrow drive at Spelman College to not only find a donor for my sister, who is no longer here, but to educate the community about the disease,” says the rapper on the show.
Still, Hudlin knows that maintaining a news division and holding town-hall meetings won’t convince some that BET isn’t failing all black Americans.
“There is a reservoir of anger over what BET has or hasn’t been. I can’t do anything about that,” he says. “We’re creating a network that is for black people and the people who love them. We are creating shows for the most creative people on earth.”