BET's Controversial New Series Airs

The new BET series We Got to Do Better sparked controversy weeks ago, when it was still titled Hot Ghetto Mess. Two advertisers pulled out after people started calling for a boycott of the series. On Monday, BET changed the name of the series, and it premieres tonight. So what's all the hubbub about?

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ALEC COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

A new TV show debuts tonight on Black Entertainment Television, BET. It's called "We Got To Do Better." But had a previous title, "Hot Ghetto Mess." That made so much controversy it scared off advertisers.

What's all the fuss about? Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

Mr. ANDREW WALLENSTEIN (The Hollywood Reporter): Anybody who's seen "America's Funniest Home Videos," or YouTube, for that matter, knows people can't get enough of embarrassing mishaps caught on tape. Tonight, BET follows that tradition with "We Got To Do Better." Think of it as a black "America's Funniest Home Videos," which is exactly why some people think the show is not funny. The clips feature African Americans doing bizarre dances, fighting in the streets, and speaking out with something less than eloquence.

(Soundbite of show, "We Got To Do Better")

Unidentified Man #1: Is America ready for a black president?

Unidentified Man #2: Well, I'll say it like this, man. We got black presidents already.

Unidentified Man #1: We do?

Unidentified Man #2: This is not our country.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay.

Unidentified Man #2: In our country we have black presidents. So I mean, you know, America is ready for America.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: Until Monday, the show was called "Hot Ghetto Mess." That's the name of the Web site that inspired the program. But when critics complained and advertisers got shy, BET made a change. Of course, "We Got To Do Better" isn't the only show that trades on racial stereotypes. VH1 has made a cottage industry out of injecting dating shows with a hip-hop sensibility. See "Flavor of Love," "I Love New York," and "Charm School." Critics have blasted all three as modern day minstrel shows. And judging from the scene from "I Love New York," it's not hard to see why.

(Soundbite of TV show, "I Love New York")

Unidentified Man #3: I'm going to have a penthouse mansion, a construction company, and a talk show.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, boy. Who would be your first guest if you had your own talk show.

Unidentified Man #3: Who would be my first guest? I want to let him know - it's good that you want them to look good, but you got to put them the work, dog. You got to put them to work. Put them in the kitchen.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: But the folks behind "We Got To Do Better" say they're not aiming to ridicule black people. And they do mix the displays of crazy behavior with commentary that clearly looks down on that behavior. Here's how the show's host, Charlie Murphy, explains the premise in his introduction.

Mr. CHARLIE MURPHY (Host, "We Got To Do Better"): Before you head out with your picket signs and you led us to the NAACP, just hear us out, okay? We want you to think of this show as a little tough love for America. We're here to (unintelligible) those few individuals out there who would make life bad for all of us. And you know who I'm talking about. Those folks - black, white or otherwise - that do this.

(Soundbite of show, "We Got To Do Better")

Unidentified Man #5: Get off my business.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: How's that for an angle? "We Got To Do Better" sees itself as a corrective to shows like "I Love New York." We're supposed to think its outrageous antics are meant to inspire people to fulfill the show's title. Yeah, right. Because TV comedy is a great tool for social change. "We Got To Do Better" may think it's morally superior to those VH1 shows, but give those shows a little credit. They don't take themselves seriously. Sure, they're reprehensible, but at least they don't claim to uplift the race. With "We Got To Do Better," BET is trying to take the moral high ground and the low road at the same time.

That's not a wise decision for a network that bills itself as the destination of choice for black America. "We Got To Do Better" proves one thing - BET needs to do a lot better.

CHADWICK: TV critic Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for The Hollywood Reporter.

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