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.