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The Old Ways of The New BET

May 12, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

Poor BET.

( All chesty and smirking, the cable network announces more original programming than ever before and instead of applause gets nothing but attitude.

Seems The Black Intelligentsia isn’t impressed.

Still haven’t gotten over those degrading, tacky music videos, I bet.

You know, the ones that have paid BET’s bills the last couple of decades while cultivating a generation of womanizers and making founder Bob Johnson the Bill Gates of black folk.

BET without music videos, Johnson used to say with a hint of patronization, would be no BET at all. So even though Johnson is gone, probably somewhere in the Carolinas counting his billions, his long time right-hand woman, Debra Lee, is the CEO with the ready-made answers to all those inquiries about misogyny, black-on-black opportunism, sexual exploitation and Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown.

Johnson has good timing. He got out as the walls began to close in, however so slightly, on the music channel that has since 1980 earned a pass for being the only game in town.

They are black folks, after all, in a white industry.

We can all relate to that.

So were willing to cut a brother some slack, if only for The Cause.

Listening and reading the discussions recently surrounding BET, though, it appears that the pass might be in danger of being revoked.

Ever since Don Imus uttered what young black men say in a number of BET-aired music videos and with bravado to boot, the tolerance over the language of hip-hop and rap has been under renewed scrutiny.

A squirming Russell Simmons tried to explain himself to Oprah Winfrey (darn if he didn’t blame it all on the white overseers who run record companies and pressure young black men to be hard) while the crowd rolled their eyes.

Now the National Association of Black Journalists, which each year doles out a “Thumbs Down” award to point a finger at some crude exploiter of African-American images has its finger pointed squarely at BET.

NABJ didn’t care for the very things BET has long been criticized for, like its depiction of black images and the lack of news and public affairs.

Maybe the last straw for the Black Intelligentsia was the network’s failure to broadcast the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

You can’t diss Coretta.

NABJ Vice President for Broadcast Barbara Ciara reminded Richard Prince how BET “has a responsibility as a network for and about African Americans to highlight the best in us.

Instead, we are inundated with more and more negative images such as those in music videos and the degradation of black women.”

She went on to say that with BET’s reach, how great it would be to see “less fluff and more relevant news and information that could greatly benefit our community.”

NABJ is no longer the powerful organization it once was — there was a time when it spoke and the industry straightened up to fly right. Now its tough talk falls and falls, as if dropped into an endless well.

Besides, BET’s pass came from NABJ as well. The organization representing over thousands of journalists teamed with BET to telecast its annual awards ceremony in 1996 and just a year ago lavished praise on BET for providing news and entertainment programming “for and about African Americans.”

I recall the word “ground breaking” being used, too.

Arthur Fennell was NABJ’s president then while Byron Monroe sits at the head of the table now, and it was Monroe, who runs things at Ebony, who used the word “sad” in how BET has basically squandered its powerful platform.

As for BET, spokeswoman Jeanine Liburd issued a statement that says, in part, how “disappointed” they are and a bit surprised (not to mention miffed) how The Black Intelligentsia could “ignore the announcement of the biggest investment and broadcast array of black programming in television history.”

Again, timing.

She also called their accusations “factually inaccurate,” such as their coverage of King’s funeral. (The Black Intelligentsia wanted it covered the way the major networks rolled out the carpet for Princess Diana.)

Singling out BET for being bad for black folk has to set some sort of precedent.

BET remains the premiere stop for black programming having amassed a subscriber base of 80 million and prominent placement on the all-important cable systems.

Johnson never led us astray in what he was trying to do, which was to create personal wealth, and do it by establishing a network that catered to black viewers. Being the only game in town made BET grow quickly in the early 80’s. While it was mostly music videos they were geared toward adults with dignified hosts like Donnie Simpson chatting up, say, Lionel Ritchie.

That changed as the music changed, and before long Simpson was out of touch with the wants and needs of viewers who find BET appealing.

Lee says as much when she defends the network.

It’s all about how young people express themselves,” she once told me.

It’s the same song and dance Simmons used with Oprah.

As for BET’s biggest investment and broadcast array of black programming in television, 16 new series will roll out this fall.

One is a scripted series about a group of black slackers caught in that awkward period between college and career. Another is an animated sketch comedy show with Ali LeRoi (executive producer of Everybody Hates Chris) calling the shots.

There’s period stuff (series on an African King who challenged Rome) sci fi (a future where Hip-Hop is outlawed) a “judge” show with Paul Mooney, a sports show with John Salley.

With the well-respected Reginald Hudlin as programming head, BET is saying that, after 26 years, it’s ready to be a real network.

And those music videos with semi-naked women and young brothers patting their butts?

Well, think of it as the escort ads in the back of a magazine that helps pay for everything in the front.

By Ken Parish Perkins

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