Is BET Answering The Call?

I’ve noticed in the past weeks a number of announcements coming out of the BET camp announcing new original programming with stronger premises and backed by industry heavy hitters. After Debra Lee’s comments on the lackluster success of “Don’t Sleep with T.J Holmes,” I wonder is BET answering the call from the black community to step it up.

First, BET Networks announced Morris Chestnut as host and co-executive producer of “VINDICATED,” a new 30-minute docu-series that sheds a much needed spotlight on individuals who have been unjustly sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. The show will illuminate the journeys of exonerees from before they were convicted to well after their exoneration and explore the highs and the lows these men and women experience as they attempt to rejoin society, rebuild family relationships, and regain their trust in the justice system that undeniably failed them. This show is a much needed shift from the norm at BET and it shows another angle of black life that is often overshadowed. It premieres December 4 at 10:30 PM ET/PT.

Next, funny man Kevin Hart is behind a new comedy on the network entitled “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” which is a spinoff of the skits he did within the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards. The skits were met with such popularity the network decided to pick it up as a show. The loosely-based reality spoof will star Kevin Hart who is recently divorced, Nick Cannon, husband of superstar Mariah Carey, Boris Kodjoe, husband of actress Nicole Ari Parker, Duane Martin, husband of actress Tisha Campbell-Martin, and Robin Thicke, husband of actress Paula Patton. With such a star studded lineup and a host of producers and writers who are Hollywood vets, its hoped that the show’s cast doesn’t overshadow the plot and satire, which is to mock everything we all love to hate about the “Housewives” franchise. The show airs Tuesday, January 13, 2013 at 10 PM ET/PT.

And finally, the Wayans family is taking another shot in the TV game with “Second Generation Wayans,” which debuts just after “Real Husbands.” This show is a comedic take on the nephews of Keenan Ivory, Shawn, Marlon and Damon emerging from the shadows of an iconic show business family to carve out their own paths to stardom in Hollywood. Damien Dante Wayans, Craig Wayans and George O. Gore II (played Damon’s son Junior in “My Wife and Kids”) star in this half-hour series along with Tatyana Ali playing their office assistant.  Other shows in the works for BET are “The Mathis Project” starring Judge Greg Mathis, “Apollo Live” with Tony Rock, and “Gun Hill” starring Larenz Tate. 

With this new infusion of shows to the network, it seems they are attempting to broaden their reach into the demographic they’re losing— the 25-40 year old crowd. BET mainly targets teens and young adults who watch rap videos and keep up with pop culture. While some of these shows will still appeal to that target market, the placement of them in the primetime “Tuesday Tryouts” slots between Basketball Wives LA and Marrying the Game on VH1 might not be bad. Where my brow is raised is how “Real Husbands” and “Second Generation” can be packaged together as a power hour of comedy but “Vindicated” premieres a month earlier in the same Tuesday night 10:30 slot. Is BET anticipating that the show will fail? How can it gain popularity if just after four episodes (maybe not even that many with the holiday season) the time slot is shifted? Small things like this give me pause when it comes to BET, but I’m going to give them a chance and see where this goes.  I’m really hoping people watch “VINDICATED” because it will need the ratings on trigger-happy BET. Hopefully it doesn’t go the way of “Don’t Sleep” with them claiming black people’s palates aren’t ready to stomach something so sophisticated and they pull the trigger to reduce the show. The other shows stand a chance because they’re lighthearted and carry strong names. They reach into a different age demographic as well but they will have more crossover appeal than the docu-series. If BET truly is answering the call only time will tell. What do you think?      

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The Power of the Crowd in Black Media

With all this low cost access to the market that Black creatives like myself now have, we are now subject to new gate keepers, new kings of media. Only this time, I don’t have to appeal to a rich few, I appeal to you. All of you. You have untold power in your numbers. A power to decide what you see and when you see it. Collectively, you have more power than any executive at a major film studio. One person with a fifty dollar bill isn’t exactly an economic force, but 100,000 people with $50 is.

Araia Tesfamariam, the visionary behind “Big Araia” speaks on the power of the crowd

Navigating Art and Commerce as a Minority

Contributed By: Araia Tesfamariam

Very few people understand how difficult it is to be a “Black” creative in the entertainment business. While every artist has to deal with the Sisyphian task of navigating the narrow chasm between art and commerce, African-Americans in film and television come face-to-face with a more daunting reality; no one in control of funding or distribution of content in Hollywood looks, acts, or thinks like we do.

Most of the movies and films that are distributed to the American market through theaters, TV, and the web are created by a small number of conglomerates – none of which are controlled or run by Black people.  Why does this matter? The importance of being in a position to decide which projects get produced is only really apparent to people of color. Every year Hollywood produces numerous films showing white people in a wide variety of roles, circumstances, and portrayals.  And because white America is comfortable seeing itself in many different ways, those projects have the opportunity to perform well at the box office. The problem for people of color in general, and Black people specifically, is that the people giving films the “Green Light” are very aware of what roles most White Americans are comfortable seeing us in. If all you have had as a viewing public is a steady 100-year diet of Black people as maids, criminals, emasculated funny men, and best buddies who are really loyal and die in the first five minutes of the film – that is all you will be willing to see because they become the only REAL representations available to you. You won’t get excited about a movie featuring an African-American as Thomas Crowne or Jason Bourne because it will be less believable to you than a vampire writing love letters to a werewolf….

If the people controlling what gets funded and who gets to be a successful actor, director, or writer buy into these limited and formulaic depictions of people of color, where is the diversity of imagery in the mainstream media going to come from? Those of us in the creative arena face our own inconvenient truth; making movies and TV shows can cost millions of dollars and there are very few people of color in the US with the financial war chest to make 20 films a year with the ability to survive after losing money on half of them. If major studios have to walk away from meaningful projects to focus on money makers like Iron Man 13, our prospects are non-existent.

The current state of the creative environment leaves us with very few real and fair opportunities for artistic expression within the conventional Hollywood system. All the cards seem to be held by so few. Producers, directors, writers, and actors have to take what paltry offerings exist just to stay solvent enough to make a creative career viable. “Oh, you don’t want to play a maid in this movie? Fine. We will find someone who will. And you probably won’t get a shot at any of the future projects we have because you won’t play ball. Have a nice life.”

So now you’re saying, “I hear you complain a lot brother man, but what’s your solution?” Fair enough. What would work for African-Americans in our creative sphere? One of the more obvious options would be to make an attempt to pull together the Oprahs, Jordans, and Bob Johnsons of the world and fund a studio strong enough to produce enough material, provide the variety and profit that Black cinema deserves. While that option seems to be the most expedient and achievable, it has some very serious flaws. The idea of creating a home for film and television projects that entertain while fairly representing our people requires an entity that exists out of the tradition Hollywood structure. Asking a group of wealthy people whose success has been built working within the self-interested ethos of the mainstream culture would be a recipe for disaster.  You can’t start a “New School” of Black cinema with old paradigms.  The existing African-American power brokers might start off with the right intentions, but their experience, success, and never-ending financial dependence on the conventional media structure would guide them eventually back to what they know works for them.

The only real solution to the quandary we find ourselves in is to start a creative hub that exists outside of the system that is built by creatives who are not of that system. We need people who aren’t afraid of selfless collaboration. This aversion to helping others at the risk of our own personal success is, ironically, the one thing that keeps us from the substantive gain we are really looking for. With the technological advances in media production that exist today, a small group of people can create and distribute for thousands what only ten years ago would have cost millions. Yes, it requires a rethinking of the size and scope of the initial offerings that are generated, but it allows for a freedom of expression currently unviable to us at the moment. Five or six small creative teams producing short form projects that are distributed through a “Hulu for Black folks” could quickly become a hub for real black media (“Real” meaning content that represents everything we are without exploiting what we have been told we should be). Worldstar HipHop has shown this model can work for ignorant BS. There is no reason that people of color with actual talent wouldn’t do better.

BrightGirl Media is our opportunity to make this goal happen. If we become self-less and help Ms.Yarber with her dream, we actually score a win for ourselves. Let’s build her up and watch how she will be able to open doors for us. You know, the kind we might actually want to walk through.

This post summed up exactly why me along with a few friends in the industry have begun to take matters into our own hands. Film and TV media are similar beasts when it comes to minority inclusion. My favorite part of the post was when the writer said : There is a shit ton of money in the African-American community and there are a hell of a lot people that actually want to see authentic stories about Black people and other people of color. Maybe you could ask yourself, “gee, might there be any way that I can dip into my tremendous network of online followers and see if I can suss out some people with disposable income that might be interested in getting involved in crowdfunding efforts for independent films, making investments or doing other things to get some of the stories that I want to see made?”
Sums it up to me!

Tahir Jetter - Filmmaker

A rant meant to respond to certain trends that I’ve seen in social media, recently, particularly with respect to online discussions of African-Americans involved in the film industry, Black movies, movies about Black people, movies about Black people that people think should feature or be directed by other people, or whatever.

To be specific, I’m discussing the vitriol surrounding the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone and the alleged replacement of Tate Taylor “over” Spike Lee for the upcoming James Brown biopic to be produced by Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger.

There are a number of people who (for various reasons) are discussing these talent attachments (or detachments) throughout social media as though they are further emblematic of Black people/Black images/Black voices being slighted/downplayed/diminished in the America entertainment industry.

Not only have there been a slew of complaints but there has also been an UPROAR:

– People that (purportedly)…

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Are Black People Losing Their Voice?

The issue of race and responsibility is everywhere in the media. Whether you see it or choose to ignore it, there has been a slow trickle to what seems to now be a quick shift back toward negative and stereotypical images of African Americans in media. I grew up on shows like A Different World, Living Single, Teen Summit and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These shows displayed positive images of young blacks who were in college, career driven, socially conscious and being exposed to a different lifestyle than living in the ghetto. But it seems that slowly but surely through the onset of the millenia, these shows went off the air and were replaced with displays of golddigging, bickering black women, black men whose only hopes are at playing ball and rocking a mic, overly sexed women and blatantly disrespectful, womanizing men. In 2000, BET was purchased by Viacom from its black owner and founder Bob Johnson. Since, the network has been on a slippery slope to stereotypical buffoonery in mine and many other educated black people’s opinions. What started off as the one and only platform for African Americans has turned into something else. This leads me to question: Are Black people losing their voice?

BET’s original co-founder, Sheila Johnson has voiced her negative opinion of the network she and her now ex-husband created in 1980 to be an outlet for African Americans. When asked about the current state of the network after being sold to a multimedia conglomerate, she said:

I think we squandered a really important cable network, when it really cold have been the voice of Black America, We’re losing our voice as a race as a result. I’m really worried about what our young people are watching. There are so many young people who are using the television as a babysitter. We have parents who are not being parents and not monitoring what their children are watching.

She went on to say that she doesn’t watch BET and suggests to her kids that they don’t either.

I’m ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth.

Johnson isn’t the only one with similar thoughts, but it makes the point more poignant that one of the people who set out to create something positive is disgusted by what it has become over the years. Current CEO Debra Lee has a different opinion of the network’s lack of social conscience. She’s been cited as saying the reason the network has failed to produce and air more positive programming is that its audience doesn’t have an appetite for it.

Over the 28 years I’ve been at BET, we’ve tried different shows, series and nightly news, and it’s always a matter of what are people going to show up to watch. We started a new show called Don’t Sleep! With T.J. Holmes, which is supposed to address these kinds of issues. It’s designed to be a mix of entertainment and news and commentary. We hoped it would have been a Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert-type show.

This dialogue leads me to a series of other questions to add to the first: 1) Who determines the programming, the audience or the network? 2) Should BET be criticized for its aversion to being the poster child for black awareness? 3) When does responsibility end and exploitation begin? Share your thoughts here.