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As a minority-owned, multimedia company that focuses on the niche market of providing African-American entertainment, Black Entertainment Television has grown from a weekly, two-hour cable channel in only 3.8 million homes to a multimedia conglomerate serving more than 58 million households. As happens with most companies, success often breeds criticism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent piece in the Washington City Paper (“Bottom Line BET,” 10/29) makes statements about BET’s business practices and programming content that are unjustified and unwarranted. It is appalling that Coates incorrectly states that BET is in the business of “exploiting” blacks by underpaying talent and playing only music videos, infomercials, and sitcoms. Instead of focusing on the facts and providing a balanced perspective, he simply slants the truth toward controversy. Although controversy is often more interesting, we feel compelled to state the actual facts of the matter.
BET is the only network that consistently showcases new and often unknown African-American talent. Since its inception in 1980, BET has provided on-air opportunities to thousands of African-American performers, producers, directors, editors, camera operators, and technicians. BET does not underpay its talent. Our network’s salary structure is firmly in line with industry standards. Coates states that BET’s decision to move Comic View tapings to Atlanta was a “cold-blooded” move to avoid paying the comedians more money. This is not accurate; the primary motive in taping in Atlanta was to feature comedians in the South, one of the key markets, which has provided more than 50 percent of Comic View performers.
We are proud that Comic View, now in its eighth season, has provided national exposure for hundreds of undiscovered, and mostly minority, comedians whose talents are not acknowledged by mainstream networks. These performers are well-aware that, for a modest sum of money and the rights to use their material on future shows, we give them a chance to showcase their acts, much like an open-mike night at a club. For many, appearances on the show have been a springboard to successful and lucrative careers, and they are strong supporters of the concept. We have also created a new late-night program, BET Live From LA, which will employ 240 minorities this season alone (all governed by American Federation of Television and Radio Artists rules).
This season, BET has committed to its largest investment ever in original programming for African-Americans. We’ve created a major black-owned and operated film studio, BET Pictures II, to produce BET’s newest offering of original programming, the Arabesque films. The venture has assembled the largest number of African-American production and acting talent in Hollywood since Oscar Micheaux’s serial production of black films in the ’20s and ’30s.
Further, the stars of these films are not “oversexed black harlots.” The leading women in our films are played by some of Hollywood’s top young African-American actresses, including Holly Robinson-Peete, Monica Calhoun, Allison Dean, and Wendy Davis. These talented actresses play strong characters with great careers who are in crisis situations. In all of our movies, BET represents African-Americans in strong roles that are hardly ever depicted in Hollywood.
BET also has several outstanding public affairs and news programs. Our award-winning show Teen Summit is a balanced, peer-based information program where teens can discuss issues that affect their lives. Lead Story is the only show on television in which viewers can consistently see African-Americans discussing politics, policy, and the issues of the day. BET Tonight With Tavis Smiley, which features nightly news segments, has become a force in the news industry, as clearly evidenced by President Clinton’s choosing to sit down, one on one, with Smiley after numerous months of silence following the congressional impeachment hearings. In addition to our news programming, BET airs Heart & Soul, a health and fitness show, and showcases black college football games that get minimal coverage from other networks.
Coates inaccurately reports that BET Action Pay Per View is BET’s movie channel. The fact is that BET’s stellar movie channel, BET Movies/Starz!, is the premier African-American movie channel available. BET Movies airs well-known, positive movies featuring the best of African-American actors, from Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover to Alfre Woodard and Oprah Winfrey.
BET Action Pay Per View network airs programming specifically targeted to adult audiences. This programming is aired during late-night hours and is no different from what every other pay-per-view network offers. Such programming is pay-per-view, and we trust that viewers are responsible enough to decide whether they wish to view it. If Coates has problems with this type of programming, perhaps he should write a column about the First Amendment, rather than BET and our pay-per-view network.
BET is more than just a singular show, network, or company—it is an entrepreneurial maverick. BET Holdings Inc. operates a number of entertainment-based businesses, all targeted toward filling industry voids in news, information, and entertainment for African-Americans. The company consists of five other networks, including BET on Jazz, the only 24-hour network dedicated to jazz; four restaurants; a clothing line; three magazines, which reach 1.8 million homes; a book-publishing division; and an interactive Web site. To staff all of these entities, BET employs more than 500 talented individuals who in many cases would not have the same opportunities to develop their talents elsewhere in the industry.
We acknowledge that our programming cannot meet all of the tastes and needs of the community. No network can. Considering the economic racism that exists within the entertainment industry and the obstacles that we have overcome, BET looks forward to the day when the industry has more companies to recognize the diverse needs of African-Americans and other ethnic groups. Until then, BET clearly remains firmly committed to providing an unparalleled level of employment, training, and exposure in all areas of the television, cable, and film production businesses.
President & COO
BET Holding, Inc.