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Like a shark at a feeding frenzy, it seems that the Washington City Paper has chosen to jump on the bash-BET bandwagon. I was truly disappointed by the article “Bottom Line BET” (10/29) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, because I usually can depend on the City Paper to provide a fresh perspective. This article seems designed to titillate, not to lend anything meaningful to the conversation.
The so-called schlocky romance movies referenced in the article were the subject of conversation at my church last Friday evening when I attended “Sisters Night Out.” It was not unusual that the subject of BET and, in particular, BET’s programming came up among a group of about 25 African-American women, ranging in age from late 20s to 50, enjoying a potluck dinner and get-together down at the historic Metropolitan AME church in downtown Washington. In the black community, we all tend to vicariously program BET to fit our own individual viewing preferences. But instead of the familiar “Why doesn’t BET show more than music videos?” refrain, several sisters were engaged in an excited conversation about the latest addition to BET’s programming lineup, the Arabesque Films & Love Stories miniseries/feature series. These sisters were telling other sisters about some great new romance movies on BET, and the sisters who had not yet seen the programs were listening with genuine interest.
Contrary to your writer’s tongue-in-cheek comment about the movies being “derived from one of the great literary genres of our time: black romance novels,” at least some of the sisters (and brothers) who are watching the movies—including myself—seem to be enjoying them tremendously. They offer exactly what many of us turn to for our television viewing pleasure: adventure, mystery, romance, culture—a little entertainment that helps us to discard the pressures of our day.
Did the writer screen any of the movies, or did he just assume that they featured the “oversexualized stereotype of the black harlot”? I have seen three of the movies and have yet to conclude that they stereotype black women. In fact, all three sisters the three movies I saw were distinctly different types of sisters, and the comments from the sisters at Metropolitan AME agreed with this assessment. And if the romance in the movies passes the church sisters’ muster, I find it hard to believe that they deserve an “oversexualized…black harlot” rating.
More important, by bashing BET in this manner, you are also bashing the efforts of hundreds of predominantly African-American creative people who take their work very seriously and who value the opportunity BET has provided for them. I am sure that the writers of the romance novels and the producers of the films based on the novels do not appreciate your writer’s insensitive comments about the Arabesque movies being “original films derived from one of the great literary genres of our time: [schlocky] black romance novels.”
Also, I think that many of the quotes attributed to Bob Johnson were unfairly taken out of context, if not misquoted entirely. For example, when he says, “I don’t want to be seen as a hero to younger people,” isn’t it logical that he is accepting the cold, cruel reality of the television business, which often means programming to the least common denominator? Because no matter how many times we African-American viewers claim that we want more “quality” programming, the numbers reveal that more of us tune in for the so-called buffoonery on Comic View than for the infinitely more enlightening dialogue found on BET Tonight With Tavis Smiley. Frankly, I see the Arabesque romance concept as a good start on BET’s part toward developing a happy medium.
Also, the writer bashes BET for “canceling” the network’s half-hour weekly news show, BETNews, but he fails to disclose that the show was replaced by an hourlong nightly news/talk show, BET Tonight, which features a live news broadcast every evening instead of just on Fridays. BET even kept the same news anchor, Cheryl Martin, and news commentator, Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post. A simple inquiry would have easily revealed this information, had you been interested in a fair account.
As for the criticism of music videos, I haven’t noticed anyone criticizing MTV and the Box for airing this genre. While I personally am a baby boomer who is no longer fascinated by the latest music-video releases, I recognize that there is a market for this type of programming. (One of my siblings claims that he watches only BET, ESPN, and the History Channel.) Indeed, were it not for BET, the careers of numerous black musical artists whose videos were not played on MTV would have been very different. As for “dead” sitcoms, Nickelodeon has made quite a lucrative business out of airing off-network sitcoms and other vintage programming, as have other cable networks. In fact, I seem to recall seeing The Jeffersons and Sanford on broadcast television, without incident.
Perhaps I am a bit more attuned to the flaws in the article because I am a BET alumna. They suggest that a proper inquiry was not conducted, and that you merely reprinted information from other sources to escalate the attack. I suggest that a much better and more fair approach to the subject matter would have resulted in a more balanced, credible story.
The true story would probably reveal that BET, the network, like Bob Johnson, the man, may not be a saint, but it ain’t Satan, either.
Former Senior Vice President
BET Network Operations & Programming