'BET' Gets Thumbs Down Award From Journalists

The cable TV channel Black Entertainment Television receives a "Thumbs Down" award from the National Association of Black Journalists at its annual convention. Its critics say BET has too much low-brow entertainment, portraying blacks in the worst possible way.

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Well, the cable channel BET was singled out this week with attention that it would happily do without. It received something called the Thumbs Down Award, announced by the National Association of Black Journalists at its annual convention yesterday. Critics say that BET, or Black Entertainment Television, is too much about low-brow entertainment which portrays blacks in the worst possible way. Now, BET is rolling out some new programs. And as NPR's Juan Williams reports, it is defining and defending its image.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHRIS TUCKER (Actor): What's up, my people? It's your boy, Chris Tucker.

Mr. JACKIE CHAN (Actor): And I'm Jackie Chan, and you're watching the hottest videos…

JUAN WILLIAMS: The dilemma for Black Entertainment Television ever since it was created in 1980 is that so much was expected of it. Journalist Richard Prince runs a blog on black media called Journal-isms.

Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Journalist): Right on the mission statement of BET says it was created to broadcast the culture, genius, beauty and talents of the black race.

WILLIAMS: And here's Barbara Reynolds, a pioneering journalist and minister.

Reverend BARBARA REYNOLDS (Journalist): BET was a group that I helped fight for. I did columns. I went on the radio. We need a BET. We don't have a black cable network. And then when it came on the air, I was appalled. I said, I can't believe this is what I fought for: half-nude women and gangsters. It was just trash.

WILLIAMS: That's one reason the National Association of Black Journalists is giving the cable channel its Thumbs Down Award. The other reason: BET did not carry live TV coverage last year of the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

Of course, the channel's competitors like MTV and VH1 don't have strong public affairs coverage either, but they aren't expected to. Journalist Richard Prince says thousands of people who backed BET from the start, everyday African-Americans, imagined the balance might tilt a little more toward news, a little less toward crass.

Mr. PRINCE: There were small contributors who bought stock and contributed to this enterprise, and I don't think they were contributing with the expectation that all they would get was music videos. In fact, Bob Johnson himself has said he didn't intend to create a network with music videos. But when he found out how profitable it was, the money sort of took over.

WILLIAMS: Johnson is Robert Johnson, BET's founder. He sold the business for $3 billion in the year 2000. It's now available in about 85 million homes. In an interview with NPR last year, Johnson said he had nothing to apologize for.

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Founder, BET): I'm very proud of what we accomplished. BET demonstrated the value of a black business, selling more than any other black company has ever sold before. BET created more African-American multi-millionaires than any company, black or white, in America. BET provided the training ground for hundreds of African-Americans who are now running major businesses and networks. So BET achieved exactly what I set out to do with it.

WILLIAMS: The channel Johnson created remains highly profitable, but BET has not dipped into its deep pockets to air more news and positive, politically aware images of black Americans. Keith Brown, BET's vice-president for news and public affairs, does not think that should be held against the channel.

Mr. KEITH BROWN (Vice-president for News and Public Affairs, BET): Unfortunately, I think that BET is held to a standard that, you know, a lot of other places aren't.

WILLIAMS: Before joining BET, Brown worked at several media outlets, including public television.

Mr. BROWN: What we did, you know, for public television, it just doesn't work with the audience, the BET audience that we have. It's 18 to 34. They're there for entertainment, so my goal is to find a way to present news and information to them that's relevant, that's a way that's going to keep them there. That's the goal.

WILLIAMS: BET already airs monthly documentaries on issues like AIDS in the black community, the situation in Darfur. And even the National Association of Black Journalists nominated some BET documentaries for awards. BET's Keith Brown says they're doing more.

Mr. BROWN: If you're with BET news throughout the day, you will get, you know, hits, you know, seven times a day with news briefs.

WILLIAMS: Now how long are those news briefs?

Mr. BROWN: Minute news briefs.

WILLIAMS: One minute between shows?

Mr. BROWN: Yes. It's a different way of gathering news.

(Soundbite of news report)

Ms. SHARON CARPENTER (Host, BET News): I'm Sharon Carpenter with a BET news brief. It's sometimes hard to believe that blatant racism still exists in this country today, but in the mostly white town of Jena, Louisiana, racist attitudes are front and center.

WILLIAMS: Still, surrounding those one minute news islands are oceans of entertainment - videos, movies, game shows. Now, BET is expanding its original programming with 16 new shows. But over the past two years, the new programs haven't quieted the critics. Their top-rated show, "Lil' Kim: Countdown," featured the frenzied hip-hop star as she prepared to go to jail for lying to a grand jury. Another new program is controversial. The original title was "Hot Ghetto Mess."

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to Hot Ghetto Mess, the show that you'd never want to see your mom on.

WILLIAMS: Protests led some advertisers to withdraw before the first episode ever aired. To calm the uproar, BET renamed the program "We Got To Do Better." Its early episode showed people - mostly blacks, some of other races - doing outlandish and embarrassing things.

Unidentified Man #1: We can't continue to do this.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh my god.

Unidentified Man #1: Especially that.

WILLIAMS: Again, BET's Keith Brown.

Mr. BROWN: I think "We Got to Do Better" really was developed to, you know, provide a forum for social commentary, to take a look at, you know, what's good about our community, what's bad, and what's ugly about popular culture. If we're judged by one show, I think that's unfair. We're rolling out 16 new shows, and when you see those 16 new shows, I think you're going to see a diversity of images and voices and how our community is.

WILLIAMS: And BET is, after all, a business. It makes its money from a young audience, median age 22, and it does not seem to be looking to reach beyond it. Other channels have tried. Some like the Black Family Channel have come and gone. TV One is the latest entry. It aims at older viewers. Jonathan Rodgers is the head of TV One.

Mr. JONATHAN RODGERS (President and CEO, TV One): BET does what it believes is best to reach its audience, and that's fine with me. I'm going after those people who are 25 to 54, and there should be room for both of us and there should be room on this television landscape for at least four or five other African-American television networks. And shame on us in this industry; we have to give people choice.

WILLIAMS: And until there are more channels, BET remains the one channel that gets most of the attention. History is likely to view it as a major black American cultural influence. It boosted rap music and hip-hop, for better or worse. That marriage of money and music proved that a black-owned business could make billions. But to cultural critics and to young people seeking images of themselves, the money has come at the expense of a distorted view of what it is to be black today.

Juan Williams, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Gangsta's Paradise")

COOLIO (Rapper): (Rapping) I'm the kind of G that little homies want to be like. On my knees in the night saying prayers in the street light.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Been spending most our lives living in a gangsta's paradise. We've been spending most our lives living in…

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