broken ruined destroyed damaged vintage television in abandoned graffitied room image by tina rataj berard on unsplash

‘Empty Television’: BET’s Journey From Beloved to Bemoaned Television Network

A look at how a once great network lost its way.
November 4, 2019
12 mins read

In the 1980s, African American cable lobbyist Robert Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television (BET), a television network featuring programming catered toward African Americans, including music videos and sitcoms. The network was praised for its airing of informative shows and specials. Today, however, the network is constantly criticized for no longer airing this type of programming as it decided to take things in a different direction.

Before it reached this point, BET was dead set on becoming the network for African Americans to watch. In 1988, it debuted BET News, which was hosted by journalist Ed Gordon. The show focused on issues relevant to African Americans as well as pop culture in general. The network’s founder believed that “There’s so much news about blacks that doesn’t get out to the rest of the country . . . BET is in a position to be a pioneer in black-oriented news.” “Teen Summit” premiered the following year as a personal project of the network’s co-founder, Sheila Johnson — the show was similar to BET News except it focused on issues affecting African American teenagers.

Other shows like these two would continue to premiere on the network. There were, however, some problems that began that would lead to the network no longer being as beloved as it currently was. One of these issues was the firing of “BET Tonight” host Tavis Smiley in 2001. Smiley had been fired for conducting an interview for another television network. He responded with a quote that alludes to one of BET’s most popular criticisms: “I then find it curious that Mr. Johnson would move to dismiss me for selling one interview in five years to another network, when BET refused to broadcast either one of our historic black think-tank symposiums which so many watched on C-Span.”

BET slowly began to move away from positive programming to focus more on shows that would appeal to a more modern audience while also portraying negative stereotypes of African Americans. This led to shows like “BET News” and “Teen Summit” being canceled in the early 2000s in favor of shows such as “College Hill” and “106 & Park.” One of the most popular aspects of BET became its hip-hop programming.

Hip-hop became so popular that MTV, a network that did not play any hip-hop at one point, eventually began to play hip-hop music videos more than rock music videos. BET realized how popular the genre was, so they decided to debut a music video show titled “Rap City.” Now that rap music videos were being played on the channel, many viewers became outraged. Many people, especially those that are older, in the black community do not like hip-hop at all. They believe that it is demeaning toward black women and creates racist stereotypes about black people.

Critics of BET and rap music believed that by airing these racist stereotypes, BET was promoting racism. The biggest detractor to BET’s rap music programming was the group Enough is Enough. The group held a giant protest outside of BET executive Debra Lee’s home in 2007. Rev. Delman L. Coates, organizer of the protest said, “Why are these corporations making these images normative and mainstream? I can talk about this in the church until I am blue in the face, but we need to take it outside.” As a way of listening to these complaints, BET started to censor the rap music videos it aired.

In a blog post from 2003, African American comic book writer Christopher Priest had the following to say about this: “I am repulsed by the images on BET and I feel assaulted by the constant onslaught of the ‘F’ word and barbaric mangling of the English language that is a conditioned response to an urban cultural expression which is, let’s face it, a manufactured product. A largely white funded and white profited self-reinforcing dumbing-down of Black America, ingeniously designed to keep us ignorant, barbaric and poverty-stricken, divided among ourselves, morally and ethically bankrupt.”

When Priest says “white funded and white profited” he is referring to the fact that BET was sold to Viacom, a corporation that also owns channels such as Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central and VH1. This sale happened in 2001 and it made the network lose its right to be considered a black-owned network. Many believe that BET literally selling out to Viacom was the reason that the network started to air derogatory rap music and shows that displayed negative stereotypes about African Americans. This couldn’t be farther from the truth as BET was airing content related to rap music as early as 1989. Even if this sale had not happened, the network would have still been airing this type of content.

Priest was not the only individual who was critical of BET. Journalist George Curry had some harsh words for the network in response to their cancellation of its positive programming: “Remember when your mother was about to administer a whipping and told you, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you’? You didn’t believe it. Nor should you believe it when a successful African-American firm sells out to a White one while pledging that after the sale, Black consumers will not get hurt. If we needed a reminder, we got a harsh one last week when Black Entertainment Television announced that it will eliminate ‘Lead Story,’ ‘BET Tonight with Ed Gordon’ and ‘Teen Summit.’ With one public announcement, BET became ET—empty television.”

BET’s move from shows that focused on important social issues relevant to African Americans was without a doubt its biggest mistake. This was what helped it attract its target audience. Today, television network ratings have been declining thanks to the rise of the internet and cord-cutting. As a result, BET and other Viacom networks such as MTV and VH1 no longer air music videos or music related shows. Why would a person wait hours to see their favorite music video when they could just pull out their cellphone and find it on YouTube in a few seconds?

Without any music programming, BET and the other networks mentioned air reality show and scripted programming along with reruns of older shows such as “Martin” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In BET’s case, they are focusing on their scripted shows with a few reality shows airing alongside them. Recently they started a partnership with director Tyler Perry to air content created by him on the network and its streaming service BET+. It’s ironic that Tyler Perry is now working with BET as both have the potential to create great shows but instead choose to create mediocre shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator of black people and feature terrible writing and acting.

Don’t believe me? Just look at what people are saying on twitter about his new show “The Oval and Sistas.” One user noted that “…the quality of work is TRASH. It’s horrible. I’ve tried so many times to watch something he has done, and it’s all bad. The writing, the acting, the story. EVERYTHING. And it’s not getting any better.” Another user tweeted out clip of the show with the following caption: “Just because Tyler Perry is a black doesn’t mean he should get a pass for putting out mediocre TV shows. Like wtf is this?”

It saddens me that a network called Black Entertainment Television is anything but entertaining and puts out awful shows like this. Shows like “Teen Summit” or “BET News” would be perfect to air in this current political climate but sadly they probably aren’t more profitable than some garbage Tyler Perry show. Instead of focusing on just appealing to a certain audience, BET should try to appeal to everyone like they used to at one point. Rap music shows and shows that focused on social issues were airing on the network at the same time at one point. Like it or not, rap is a part of the black community since it was created by black people.

It absolutely deserves a place on BET no matter how negative it may be sometimes. Unfortunately, I do not see this kind of change happening anytime soon. The network exists as a shell of its former self as it continues to air new shows that are mediocre along with reruns of older shows that are actually good and some award shows. Unless Viacom changes its mind, this will continue to be the network’s fate.

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