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It’s late or it’s afternoon. The X-Files isn’t on or Oprah just went off. Not up for anything too educational or too cultural, maybe some music videos, tops. But MTV’s showing one of those obnoxious Gen X reality shows. What’s an urban black girl to do?
Searching for black faces in small spaces, I seek my reflection on a TV screen. Eyes scan, remote clicks, and I land on BET—Black Entertainment Television. Ah yes, “television made just for me.”
But is it?
I’m 24. Black and citified, educated middle-class and artistically inclined, equal parts geek and hipster. I don’t watch TV regularly because I’m always running my mouth or running around town, but every few days, I fall prey to gravity and crash on the couch. Like most folks, I don’t expect much from television, but despite reasonable hopes and a vague feeling that I should like BET, I always end up turning it off in no time flat. Is it too much to expect that I might be mildly entertained by people in my own image? Apparently so.
It’s not that BET is evil, it’s just so…completely whack. It’s like a Jheri curl in the midst of no-lye relaxers, dreadlocks, and braids. It’s Jet in the age of Essence and Emerge. Regular chocolate ice cream when you could be eating New York Super Fudge Chunk.
BET has been sliding along for 15 years, and it’s chronically disappointing, a grinding reminder that just because a black man’s driv-ing the bus doesn’t mean it’s going somewhere new. On almost every level, BET is boojee, tired, and dated.
I remember when BET was first coming on. We—meaning me and my family—were excited because finally there was going to be a black channel, some alternative to the usual oppressive schlock. When I heard about BET, I imagined black movies and black sitcoms and black people who lived lives like mine. I, like many folk, put too much hope in the word “black” and assumed “entertainment” was a given. There were plenty of pronouncements about a new age of broadcast black identity, but what we got in the end was a kind of slow-moving black MTV.
Sometimes I wonder why I even bother to stop at Channel 35, but I do like hiphop and BET sets it out. Yet when it comes to music programming on BET, there are more commercials than videos, and some of the most popular songs are real annoying anyway (R. Kelly’s singing “You remind me of my jeep….I want to wax it” quickly turns me off, and the television follows shortly thereafter). As it is, the hosts talk way too much, and in the end, I have a better chance of seeing what I want on MTV and VH-1, now that black artists have finally broken into those markets.
It didn’t have to be this way. Over the past decade, the televised spectrum has widened, offering more opportunities to increasingly narrow audiences. The idea of an all-news channel, an all-music channel, or an all-comedy channel sounded ludicrous a decade ago, but now CNN and Comedy Central are part of everyday existence.
The exploding number of channels has meant TV is not as reliably inane as it used to be: Various broadcast tribes have quickly matured and produced dynamic, unexpected programming. When I want to see something unusual and learn about something new, I can turn on the Learning or Discovery channels. When I want to watch good dance performances or see independent film, I can turn on Bravo or A&E. But when I want to see something black…well, I can wait ’til February. It’s sad, but even BET waits until the appointed month of historical tokenism to air some of its better programming. (In a recent interview, comedian Chris Rock said that watching HBO in February is like tuning into a “BET with money.”)
BET’s task of generating programming that has salience for a broad spectrum of black people is a daunting one. Unlike other niche channels, BET’s market isn’t quite as defined in terms of characteristics—being black isn’t a hobby and no one channel can meet the needs of a racial group. Still, most of the black people I know say that BET doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to representing the diversity of our people and seems to make little effort to match the quality seen on other cable outlets.
Some of those same folks say I shouldn’t criticize BET, because it’s just a TV station that happens to be black-owned. What about the white-owned TV stations that are rife with mediocre stuff? Look at Paramount and the WB, for example. (Does anybody watch Hercules or Xena: Warrior Princess?) But those stations are relatively new, and I don’t recall reading interviews where their CEOs were celebrating their contribution to society.
Bob Johnson, the founder and CEO of BET, has often been quoted saying he wants his station to have the same kind of name recognition and reputation as Disney. High aspirations, but seemingly attainable for a man who took a $15,000 loan and turned it into a $100-million dollar company. Still, I doubt that Disney would dream of attaching its name to some of the empty and often exploitative trash BET airs.
Has Johnson looked at BET’s selection of music videos lately? Gangstas and playaz surrounded by a bevy of video hoes wearing G-strings, perpetratin’ in somebody’s rented mansion or maxin’ on the beach. The song could be about growing up in the cold, hard city, and they’d still find a way to throw in a beach scene with lots of jiggle. Sure, they electronically blur images of guns and close-ups of bikini-clad dancers’ cleavage and rear ends, but it’s certainly not what you’d call family fare.
Johnson has been busy living his own version of the high life, forming alliances with companies like Blockbuster, Tele-Communications Inc., and Microsoft. And BET’s own Action Pay-Per-View probably has network execs singing, “Cash rules everything around me. Dolla, dolla bill, y’all.” BET may not be taking down the awards for programming innovations, but they’ve been making many trips to the bank.
BET’s programming covers three basic groups: music, infomercials, and other. The “other” category is principally comprised of reruns—reruns of music award shows, reruns of sitcoms, and reruns of reruns. I recently spent a day and a night watching BET to see what is what, and let me tell you brothers and sisters, it was well below average, even for TV.
In the daylight hours, you get a mix of hiphop, R&B, and pop with different hosts and formats. BET focuses on music videos in part because they are inexpensive to produce. Off-air, employees at BET jokingly call the station “Hoochie TV” because of all the videos featuring an inexplicable level of gratuitous sex.
Commercial motifs of black culture are everywhere, in both paid and unpaid programming. Guys selling women selling records passes for programming, and is interrupted by kente-cloth McDonald’s ads, R&B cola jingles, and house-party pizza ads with someone singing, “Cheese to the edge of the crust, oh yeah.”
Speaking of cheese, the midnight hour at BET is held down by Jazz Central, 90 minutes of live performances, hosted by Angela Stribling, the former host of BET’s Screen Scene and, rumor has it, an aspiring singer. The show opens with the sweet sounds of traditional jazz, but most of the time it airs a form of music my friends and I call “jass,” that insipid-sounding offspring of fusion and muzak. Tonight’s program, however, features the Stephen Scott Trio, a young band headed by a pianist who apprenticed under Betty Carter. But then, as if proving my presuppositions correct, the second half features a virtuoso pianist named Mario Grigorov. Now, the man can definitely play, but why he is on this show? I’m not sure what he’s playing—Modern Classical? Classical New Age? Classical Modern Elevator Age?—but it’s not jazz, my friends.
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Insomnia-inspired viewers are likely to encounter an episode of the endlessly repeated Video Soul, a BET staple, during forays into blacktvland. This show, a bad hodgepodge of Arsenio, Soul Train, and Friday Night Videos, epitomizes the rut that BET is in. The show opens with hosts Sherry Carter and Donnie Simpson—two of the corniest people on Earth—grooving behind a scrim, which slides away magically à la Arsenio, and the duo enters to forced applause. Wow, Sherry and Donnie are in the house.
They chat and banter, before moving to the living room–style set to chat and banter some more. And maybe show a video. Then some more chat and banter. In one episode, the featured guest is a guy who put together a calendar of handsome black men. Guess who Mr. January is? None other than Donnie Simpson, he of the topaz-colored eyes that drive the ladies mad. Doesn’t matter how you color it, this is some banal, boring-ass TV. There are band appearances, endless chitchat, a few videos, and a lot of commercials. “Cheese to the edge of the crust, oh yeah.”
One of the episodes I watched was devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder and included a surprisingly lovely pianoside interview. At the close of the show, Stevie received a much-deserved standing ovation and Simpson half-jokingly said that as much as they’d like to continue talking to Stevie, “We have to go ’cause Bob Johnson’s getting ready to go to his infomercials.”
It is indeed infomercial time, y’all. From 3 a.m. to 9 a.m., nothing but the best in paid programming on BET. And here to kick it off is none other than the late-night diva herself, Dionne Warwick, with her good friend and psychic adviser, Linda Georgian.
The Psychic Friends Network (PFN) is now in its ninth season. If Warwick could really see into the future, she probably would have made some career moves a while back to avoid spending the twilight of her career imprisoned on a widely ridiculed infomercial. It hurts deep inside to see a talented sister sink so low. Dionne Warwick gave my hometown of San Jose, Calif., its own theme song, as well as creating many other hits I still hum on the sly. You would think that Whitney would come help her ailing aunt, that somebody, anybody, would pull her aside. But Dionne just keeps churning out new episodes from the astral plane.
This is my absolute biggest beef with this station—I’m sorry, but tell me why white channels get Ron Whatshisname and his slicing and dicing gadgets, and we get Warwick offering psychic advice for $3.99 a minute? At least with a kitchen gadget you can know for sure that it doesn’t work and maybe try to return it. There is, however, no money-back guarantee for psychic advice. But it’s not just the high cost that irks me. Those PFN commercials are also demeaning. Warwick ought to be ashamed—homegirl has obviously completely forgotten herself. She needs support, not enabling.
The episode I watched starts out simply enough. Georgian announces the winners of the Psychic Quest, a contest in which viewers were asked to write in with their psychic experiences. The first-place prize of $25,000 went to a black lady who, upon the advice of her personal psychic friend, adopted a boy who turned out to be her long-lost nephew. Now, really.
If that’s not unbelievable enough, there was a dramatic re-enactment in which we meet Tanisha (or Tanicia, depending on who’s talking). The woman in the piece is a mammy-style, sassy, loud-talkin’, junk-food eatin’, fat black woman in her 30s. But before we dismiss her as a welfare case, we find out she’s working two jobs and going to school.
The info-drama opens with Tanisha/Tanicia on the phone yelling at a bill collector while trying to quiet her teenage son and daughter who are raising a ruckus in the living room. She hangs up frustrated and decides she needs to call her psychic friend. The psychic tells her that she sees money in Tanisha’s future—and a red sports car.
We aren’t really surprised then to find out that she wins $100,000 in the lotto—that’s the only way black folks get money apart from robbing and playing ball, right?—which she uses to pay her bills and finish nursing school and buy a brand-new red sports car and still have enough left over to put money away for her children’s education and quit one job. I didn’t know $100,000 could do all that, but this is PFN, where all things are possible.
After this little drama, Warwick announces that the “real” Tanisha is in the audience. The camera pans to an attractive, articulate black woman who looks and acts nothing at all like the Jemima caricature we saw in the re-enactment. Warwick and Georgian will tell you that “all it takes is a telephone and an open mind,” but what they really mean is a telephone and no self-esteem.
By this time, it’s late and I’ve been up for quite a while. I notice myself copying down phone numbers to order products that might make my life more complete. The Ab Roller Plus, presented by U.S. Aerobic Champion Brenda Dygraf, is a useful piece of technology. Touted as “the last abdominal product you’ll ever have to buy,” this doodad actually looks like it would work. The curved frame supports your head and neck, preventing that awful tension that kicks in long before your stomach muscles start to feel the burn. If I had a hundred bucks to spare, I’d probably buy it. Then again, it is getting kind of late.
Just as I put my credit card back in my wallet, I’m tempted with another your-life-isn’t-complete offer. Fanfare please….Announcing: The Ionic Toothbrush. Out of all the infomercials, this is my personal favorite. It changes the polarity of your teeth so that they repel plaque, instead of attracting it. It works on the same principle as those glass balls with the lightning rods inside that make your hair stand up on end. At least that’s what they say. I fall asleep in front of the TV, dreaming of myself with an Ionic Angela Davis ’fro and pearly-white teeth.
Souls are bought and sold on BET as well. Three hours of the paid programming during the early morning is designated for “religious-oriented” advertisements, with the word “religious” thrown about rather loosely. We are now entering the realm of true and false prophets: Who is really anointed by God and who’s faking the funk? First up is Today With Marilyn Hickey, a Bible study show. Of course, there are products attached. In this case, videotapes for $15 and audiotapes for $10. Her tapes are reasonably priced, but the fact that she has a Bible college and other institutions named after her makes me a little suspicious. She’s followed by The Believer’s Voice With Kenneth Copeland. Really, it’s just two old white guys sitting at a kitchen table, talking. Two good ol’ boy white guys. They’re selling books for $16, six audiotapes for $30, or two videos for $40.
The title of the next show, The Power of the Prophets, had me on edge right from the get-go. I’m wary when I see a “bishop” clad in raiments of white and gold. The man with the plan is E. Bernard Johnson of Zoe Ministries, and he’s asking for a “love gift” of $21 for a 21-day fast. This is stuff of old. These are the kind of preachers my mama used to complain about—they drive big, long sedans and go from house to house on Sunday, skinnin’ and grinnin’ and eating up folks’ food. Next we see Bishop Johnson in a wing-back leather chair, profiling in his office as he explains his mission. He’s wearing a red and black hounds-tooth sportscoat over his black shirt and white priest’s collar. Tacky. A full-size computer hums ostentatiously behind him, while a laptop sits on the desk. The bishop offers a 1996 “wisdom planner” for a “love gift” of $96. Get it? ’96 and 96!
At least the PFN infomercials carry the small tag line on the bottom of the screen: “for entertainment purposes only.” BET’s broadcast ministers don’t admit as much.
I know BET needs to make a few bucks, but it seems like there should be better ways to stay afloat than pimping the black community with faux promises from psychics and TV reverends. Especially when you consider that the people most likely to pay for such nonsense are usually those who can least afford it. It’s an invitation to one long Catch-22—pile up big bills, get depressed, call psychic friends, have bigger bills and less money, get more depressed, etc.
BET may do some good things, but in the main, it’s a vehicle through which black people exploit rather than uplift other blacks. Though I’m sure whites are involved as well, it’s Warwick who’s endorsing high-priced telephone psychics. It’s a black minister who’s trying to sell daily planners for the outrageous price of $96 apiece. White people have been commercially exploiting blacks since the days of the first freed slave, but some of the hucksters on BET descend into the realm of the outrageous. And the black public is largely unwilling to criticize someone who looks like us, even if he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Sort of like O.J. Simpson, come to think of it. Like BET, O.J. has enjoyed the support of blacks without any history of making efforts on their behalf. It makes sense that O.J. gave his first televised interview after the trial to BET.
The BET special was vintage Simpson and typical BET. You have to give BET some credit for pulling it off—no one ever accused Bob Johnson of being short on promoting skills. After reneging on the NBC interview and the rumors of a CNN interview that never happened, no one thought the Juice would even show.
The special, O.J. Simpson—Beyond the Verdict, began with news anchor Cheryl Martin doing a report about the trial’s “aftermath.” Simpson received sympathetic handling, with a focus on all the harassment he had to endure after the trial—his country club dropped him (the indignity of it all), his agent dropped him, his neighbors wanted him to move. Other segments included three of the black jurors telling their story and a brief interview with O.J.’s family.
As the report ended, Martin informed us that O.J. was running late, but that he would arrive soon. Which shows that you can take the man out of the culture, but you can’t take the culture out of the man. O.J. still runs on C.P. Time, y’all. (That’s Colored People’s Time, for the multiculturally illiterate.)
When the interview with Ed Gordon finally started, it was soon clear that BET had accepted O.J. on terms that no other (white) station would have accepted. O.J. wouldn’t answer some of the most important questions (Exactly where were you that night? What was in Nicole’s safety deposit box?) because he didn’t want to hurt sales of his tell-all video. Oh, that and the small matter of a deposition and the civil suit.
All during the interview, the commercial for O.J.’s tell-all video was airing. This too goes against common sense and journalism’s ethical conventions—that it’s important to avoid conflicts of interest, and even the appearance of those conflicts. And Gordon basically apologized for asking many of the questions, prefacing his queries with “I have to ask you this” and “I know you must be hurting.” It was a soft-pedal at best and an abandonment of principles at worst.
Just as BET isn’t 100-percent bereft of redeeming value, neither was this program. The viewer call-in segment, with Bev Smith’s graceful moderating and commentary by Emerge editor George Curry and academic Michael Dyson, gave the show some much-needed context. The consensus of the American people? O.J. is living in a dream world. The interview itself revealed, precisely because O.J. tried to hide it, his Don Quixote/Othello identity crisis. At times there was real anger and indignation in his voice, but always with an undercurrent of bafflement. O.J. simply didn’t get it. Why was he being questioned? When Gordon brought up Claus von Bülow, a man who was similarly acquitted of killing his wife in a sensational trial, and suggested Simpson might follow von Bulow’s example and lay low, Simpson bristled, saying, “Where do they want me to go? Back to Africa?,” not realizing that the answer to his rhetorical question is a resounding yes. Several times, Simpson sputtered, “I’m an American. This is my country.” It used to be your country, O.J., back when you were the unsullied lawn boy for football marathons.
Simpson was coy throughout the interview, looking to maintain the value of his videotaped revelations. He lamented his enormous legal fees and lost commercial appeal. Gordon asked the former broadcast luminary why he now seems to embrace the same community he shunned back when he was on top. Simpson defended himself by pointing out that he had donated some equipment to peewee sports leagues in the predominantly black neighborhood where he grew up.
It’s just the kind of fig-leaf excuse that apparently drives the corporate philosophy of BET. The channel lures us in with cheap filler to cover its real purpose—peddling high-priced products of little use. In much the same way as the video-pimping Simpson, BET says to its detractors, “Hey, I’ve got to make a living somehow.” The channel seems to chafe at public criticism, assuming it’s inoculated from accountability because of the presence of a few black faces. It’s as if having a channel where the hosts and stars look like us is enough—which is especially ironic, since at times they don’t.
Some of my viewing friends are insulted by what they see as a bevy of paper-bag-test-passin’ on-air personalities. Being convinced that my darkness is lovely, I didn’t really notice this phenomenon at first. I always associated the channel with its most high-profile brown one, Donnie Simpson. But having expanded my viewing hours, I can see a trend toward the light side.
BET’s Screen Scene is basically a smaller, blacker, and, if this is possible, more lightweight version of Entertainment Tonight. The half-hour show is hosted by Harold McCoo (kin to Marilyn, of Fifth Dimension and Solid Gold fame) and Kathy Andrews, both of whom look like very pale people with extremely dark suntans. My advice for McCoo: Lay off the bronzer.
BET’s tendency toward the lighter side of things does not end with skin color. A scant once a week, they air a half-hour of BET News during the 6:30 time slot occupied by Screen Scene. During the day, there are two 60-second news briefs. This strikes me as a pathetically low quotient of news, even if BET’s middle name is entertainment. News, like music videos, is one of the cheaper formats a station can produce. Given the dearth of quality reporting on issues of importance to blacks in the mainstream print and television media, BET could have a significant impact. There’s a reason people say rap serves as the CNN of the black community—even MTV has regular news segments every day.
When it’s not playing music videos, infomercials, or inconsistent specials, the station fills the time with a jumble of recycled sitcoms. After the long barrage of late-night infomercials, you’d expect a morning show or some kind of children’s show. Not on BET. The day starts with Roc, a sitcom about a working-class family in Baltimore—a black Honeymooners, if you will. I actually like this show and was disappointed when the Fox network decided to cancel it. But that doesn’t mean I need to see it everyday, twice a day, though.
Then there’s Benson, that classic series, with Robert Guillaume as the governor’s black butler. At some point during the show’s long history, he eventually got a promotion and became the governor’s assistant, but either way you look at it, it’s another case of the black sidekick helping out the bumbling white guy.
Thea is a little more modern, though no less hackneyed. It’s about a single mother (widowed) raising her four kids with love and a sense of humor. Why she has to be a single mother is beyond me. Those TV producers just can’t let Mammy die. They may have moved her out of the South and taken off the red kerchief, but it’s the same old Aunt Jemima mess.
Considering that a season of sitcoms consists of 22 episodes at a cost of about a million per episode, I don’t expect BET to start producing its own sitcoms anytime soon. Just the same, some excellent independent films have been made at a fraction of that cost. It’s not hard to imagine that BET, with some creativity, could produce or co-produce some new product and elevate BET-specific offerings. HBO, Discover, and Bravo all seem to find the money for programming that makes cable seem worthwhile. Why can’t BET come to the table?
It’s not as if BET never tries, but during the rare times when it broadcasts quality, who’s there to notice? Bev Smith’s show, Our Voices, is really good, but how many people wake up at 8 a.m. Pacific to see it? And most of the target audience for Smith’s show is in church at 11 a.m. on Sundays, which is when the show airs in the East.
The channel is capable of putting together really good specials. The town meeting on AIDS had excellent, well-informed panelists. The “celebrity” panelist was actress Kim Fields, who presented well-researched arguments in place of the emotional platitudes stars typically put forth. But with so much schlock in between these occasional gems, a lot of the target audience might not watch often enough to know when they’re coming on.
Sometimes I feel as if my entire race is the misfit kid in school walking around all day with a “kick me” sign on his back. Is there some deeply embedded hypnotic suggestion that makes black people somehow more eligible for mediocrity? Why are we so willing to accept the poorest cuts of meat, leaving the best parts to a white specter who rarely even considers us on a day-to-day basis, a specter who probably wouldn’t even notice if we ran away with the whole hog?
We know that the primary reason Johnson runs the kind of programming he does is because it is inexpensive but makes a lot of money. He’s a business person who just happens to be black, but what of his Disneyesque aspirations? Roc reruns just ain’t going to get it. If Johnson wants the BET brand name to mean anything, he will have to start funding programming that people can’t get anywhere else.
BET’s lack of ambition is particularly disappointing, because the issue of who owns the printing press, or in this instance, the network, is critical. There’s no denying the way the white-dominated media consistently, subconsciously undermines attempts to create accurate portrayals of blacks on television and in film. Those who have seen Marlon Riggs’ brilliant documentary, Color Adjustment are aware of how, time after time, groundbreaking programs have been toned down and diluted, or simply canceled. It’s disheartening to think that black-owned media outlets may be perpetuating this history, like the ex-slave who automatically goes to the back door, long after gaining his freedom.
There’s an old philosophy at work here—“black faces in high places.” It was taken for granted that if a black person was at the helm, then they had your back. This philosophy has allowed many a politician to remain the incumbent and many a businessperson to get rich. Too many people take advantage of our historical brand loyalty, without taking care to address our changing needs. We should be able to call out another brother or sister on their ill activities without being accused of racial treason.
I’ve never bought into the idea that we are slaves to the media, though I admit they influence every aspect of our lives. Black people are simply going to have to stop settling for mediocrity when it comes clothed in various shades of brown—whether it’s power-hungry politicians or money-hungry businessmen. Capitalism only sees one color. Greed—I mean, green.
It’s time for more good stuff on a more regular basis. It’s not like I plop down expecting something deep or something militant—it is TV, after all. At the very least, BET should work harder to avoid tired stereotypes. I’m not even looking for “positive” images all the time. Within my own family I can find all of the extremes, from crime-inclined to civic-minded, working-class to well-off. What I’m basically hoping to see on television is something that reminds me of the familiar, what I see in my home or in my neighborhood.
If BET doesn’t start producing quality of its own accord, maybe a little competition might spur things on. As it is, BET is the only black-owned channel, which means blacks have little opportunity to exercise their preferences. We can’t just turn the dial to another station, because there is no other station for black-identified programming. But World African Network, based in Atlanta, may soon provide the kick in the butt needed to get BET into high gear and out of its current rut. The network, headed by Eugene Jackson and his wife, Phyllis, a former vice-president for children’s and family programming at NBC, promises to focus more on news and original programming when it expands its broadcasting area by year’s end.
Johnson took a big risk when he started BET, but he has since retreated to the lowest-of-the-low common denominator. BET’s chief accomplishment has been its survival as a black-owned media outlet, but its inability to connect with a young black audience in a meaningful way does not bode well for its future. BET may one day look like a dusty copy of Ebony magazine, passed over in favor of Essence, Emerge, American Visions, or Black Enterprise. Though it broke the first ground for blacks in cable, BET may soon find itself becoming a dinosaur, the topic of conversations about “the good ol’ bad ol’ days,” while young upstarts fill the holes it’s left behind. CP