RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Black Entertainment Television was created to bring authentic African-American voices to cable. Back in the 1980s, the black-owned channel was a symbol of achievement. Founder Robert Johnson promised the network would be the Motown of television or a Disney for black viewers, but NPR's Neda Ulaby reports those viewers have to go elsewhere to find shows they want to watch.

NEDA ULABY: Many African-Americans don't watch the channel that's supposed to serve them, and some even protest BET - not for its lineup of old sitcoms and recycled reality shows so much as its booty videos.

According to a study released earlier this month by the Parents Television Council, BET videos airing after school and during the day on weekends show much more sex and violence than MTV's, yet BET rates them as appropriate for younger children.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: (Chanting) BET is not just like me.

ULABY: That frustration and disgust from activists picketing BET's January awards show has erupted into popular culture.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Boondocks")

(Soundbite of Music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Welcome to BET headquarters.

ULABY: That's from the animated show of "The Boondocks" on the Cartoon Network.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Our leader, Bob Johnson, had a dream, a dream of creating a network that would accomplish what hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and malt liquor couldn't, the destruction of black people.

Mr. MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Associate Professor, Duke University): I think, you know, BET is in a tough place.

ULABY: Mark Anthony Neal teaches African-American popular culture at Duke University.

Mr. NEAL: They are a network that for a long time could take for granted what their audience was and what their audience would be willing to watch.

ULABY: That audience felt a sense of ownership for a channel they helped get on the air with a national, grass-roots campaign. And they got programming that, for a while, included news and public interest. For the first time, a black-owned channel reflected African-Americans back to themselves with home-grown stars like Ed Gordon and Cedric the Entertainer.

(Soundbite of television program)

Mr. CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER (Comedian): All right, you look good. Man, everybody look - well, not everybody.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: There's a brother back there with a suit on from two different Easters, man.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

ULABY: But then a couple of things happened. A giant corporation, Viacom, bought BET in 2000 and made founder Robert Johnson the country's first black billionaire. Another black channel got started a few years later, called TV1. And for the first time, black people and white people's top-rated shows started to be the same, thanks to the rise of forensic dramas and reality television.

(Soundbite of television show, "Flavor of Love")

Mr. FLAVOR FLAV (Rapper): Let me hear you say Flavor Flav.

Unidentified People: Flavor Flav.

ULABY: Take "Flavor of Love." Its critics would say please, it's skeevy(ph), and in that magical demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds, "Flavor of Love" is one of the most popular shows on cable for whites and blacks. And it's on VH1, not BET. TV critic Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times says BET is following cable trends of wooing young viewers.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Television Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Now, the problem that they have is that there are a lot of people out there in the culture, a lot of black people especially, who are not part of that demographic. They're older and they have more traditional views about what should be on television, and they have more traditional views about what BET should be offering in terms of the picture it presents of black people to the world.

ULABY: BET's original audience isn't happy with shows like "106th & Park," which is like MTV's "Total Request Live" but raunchier, and "College Hill," set at historically black colleges but otherwise a lot like "The Real World" but with much more violent fights.

(Soundbite of television program, "College Hill")

Unidentified Woman #3: (Censored)

Ms. TIA TYREE (Professor, Howard University): I do not watch BET. It has nothing to offer me. I do not watch TV1.

ULABY: Tia Tyree is a young professor in Howard University's communications department, and she's just turned on BET for the first time in ages.

(Soundbite of television program)

(Soundbite of Music)

ULABY: Tyree compares the videos and old sitcoms on the black affinity channels to - flip the channel - news programs on Telemundo and Univision. Tyree says it's hard sometimes not to feel that network owners are depriving black audiences of smart programming.

Ms. TYREE: And they don't want them to get the news that they can use and would change their lives and impact them in the same way that they could if they were a Latino person getting Latino news daily for themselves.

ULABY: Tia Tyree says if you look at the top cable shows among black viewers, BET is barely on the list. Number one and two, a TBS show, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne."

(Soundbite of television program, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Today is the day, today.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

ULABY: Creating syndicated, scripted shows might be the secret, says Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal.

Mr. NEAL: What Tyler Perry has done is really brilliant in that regard. He did not go the traditional route of trying to make a pilot and find a studio to work with and find a network that would show it. He produced these episodes all himself and put them directly into syndication, and TBS said it sounds like a good idea. Let's run with it.

(Soundbite of television program, "Tyler Perry's House of Payne")

(Soundbite of Music)

Unidentified Man: (As character) (Singing) Ooh, today is the day.

Mr. NEAL: I think if there were more African-American programmers who were thinking alongside that model as opposed to creating the next great black channel, you know, whether that's BET or Television One, that they'll have much more flexibility in terms of getting their message out to the marketplace.

ULABY: That's something BET has promised but not yet delivered. For his part, Neal says when he wants to see truly innovative African-American programming, he has to cherry-pick shows all over the menu: "The Wire" on HBO, "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and the rapper Bone Crusher guest-judging on "Iron Chef." That's on the Food Network. Neal says he has to use his TiVo to make his own BET. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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