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The NAACP should let the big three networks be—and take a look at their own
For most of its storied existence, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s basic strategy has been to progressively knock down the doors of segregation. Mostly, it has done so through legal challenges. Occasionally, it has relied on boycotts.
But in the post-civil-rights era, with legal segregation out of the way, the ancient flagship of African-American activism has adopted a new tactic: Wait for white people to trip over themselves and then point out the gaffe—as loudly as possible. Everyone from Denny’s to Merriam-Webster to the state of South Carolina has fallen into the NAACP’s booby trap.
The latest victims are the Hollywood television moguls who neglected to include a single nonwhite leading character among the 26 new network television series that premiered this year. At their annual convention this past July, NAACP leaders launched into a tirade against the three major networks’ whitewashed fall season. During the November sweeps, says NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, the organization will single out a network for boycott by the black community.
Mfume’s tactics make some sense. After all, Hollywood has either ignored or stereotyped its black audience for years, right up to the current TV season. But if he wants to hit an especially good source of exploitation—the kind of place that assumes black talent should be underpaid and black viewers given a steady diet of music videos, infomercials, more music videos, and repeats of 227—the NAACP boss should skip Hollywood and turn his attention to the Brentwood headquarters of Robert Johnson’s Black Entertainment Television.
Johnson, BET’s CEO and founder, is a target who would make any boycott sponsor proud. A credit to his race and one hell of a businessman, Johnson knows how to get a bang out of his bucks—often at the cost of his own credibility. Recently, after the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists took issue with the fact that BET paid comics only $150 to appear on Comic View, Johnson knew that there would be trouble for BET. In a move that any cold-blooded business exec would love, Johnson declined to pay his comics more—and instead moved the show from Los Angeles to cheaper pastures
When asked by Newsweek why he chronically underpaid his on-air staff, Johnson deftly observed, “I am trying to bring a different economic paradigm to Hollywood, one that produces a product for much less [money].” Anyone who has watched BET can attest to the brilliance of this business strategy.
And Johnson is looking forward to a future in which his thin gruel is the only fare offered to black America. “Our goal is not to see another black programming service exist,” said Johnson during a 1997 speech to a group of stock analysts.
The dime-store philosophy is on brilliant display this fall. While the big three feature white 20-something angst, BET plans its most ambitious original programming ever. The new schedule will include Arabesque Films & Love Stories, a series that will feature original films derived from one of the great literary genres of our time: black romance novels.
Officially, BET’s black romance movies are part of its continuing effort to expand programming geared toward black women. Moreover, BET is apparently seeking to counter the Hollywood typecasting of black women. Tired of white directors casting black women as Hattie McDaniel clones? With BET’s creative talent at the helm, you won’t have to deal with the neutered stereotype of the big momma. Instead, you get the oversexualized stereotype of the black harlot.
And then there are the, uh, “adventure” flicks on BET Action, the network’s movie channel. Features include such pride-inspiring fare as The Peep Show: Summer Heat, featuring the lovely Heather Hunter. If that ain’t inspiring, you can check out the Las Vegas Bikini Contest, Miss Black Swimwear III, American Pin-Up Girls, or Becky LeBeau’s Party Girls II.
BET has also taken a singular stand against the portrayals of black people on the evening news. Everyone complains about how black people get a bad deal from the news media. But BET has actually done something about the issue: It canceled its weekly news broadcast. While other stations simply noted complaints and went back to business as usual, BET took things a step further and eliminated the only news show where African-Americans might have gotten a fair shot in the first place. And the lack of costly news programming makes the picture of the bottom line glow all the rosier.
A glance at BET’s fall programming also makes it clear that the network is actively attempting to foil the biggest conspiracy since the CIA tried to kill Farrakhan: the plot to suppress the dissemination of canceled sitcoms and useless infomercials. Why else would BET feature the lost episodes of 227 one day and the latest model of Bowflex the next? BET stands up for dead black sitcoms and allows you to purchase useless junk along the way.
Ads, sitcoms, and schlocky romance notwithstanding, the schedule still capitalizes on what BET does best—music videos. In fact, seven out of the nine new shows that BET is premiering this fall are centered around videos. Who needs the token black kid on Felicity when you can get the Hot Boys 24-7 or catch Holly Robinson-Peete being swept away by a black Fabio?
On BET, you get to see black people doing what the old Hollywood stereotypers always implied we do best—singing, dancing, telling jokes, and fornicating. So if it’s true that we are a naturally jovial people, maybe I’m wrong in being so gosh-darned serious and sour about BET. Maybe it’s only right that one of our own profit from our good-naturedness. For years, white people have made money off our natural gift for being the life of the party. If a white man can make loot stereotyping black people, why can’t a black man do the same? Malcolm X would be proud.
And whereas Malcolm might have inspired your son to go off and do something crazy, like get himself assassinated, you won’t have to worry about that with Johnson. “I don’t want to be seen as a hero to younger people,” Johnson told C-SPAN in 1992. “I want to be seen as a good solid business guy who goes out and does a job, and the job is to build a business.” Johnson will not let little things—like setting an example for other people’s children—keep him down.
So if you accept Johnson’s philosophy, there’s no reason to boycott anyone—not CBS, not NBC, and certainly not BET. His network may serve up a healthy bit of buffoonery, but at least it’s our buffoonery.
If, on the other hand, the NAACP is out to get a better cultural deal for black America, maybe the Baron of Brentwood would make a better target than some national-network bean counter.CP