Blacks, BET and Boycotts

In Cita's World, an afternoon program on Black Entertainment Television, most blacks drive Range Rovers and Porsches, wear expensive jewelry and live in fabulous mansions. Cita, a computer-generated, streetwise black woman, hosts rap and R&B videos that usually showcase the bing-bling lifestyles of the black rich and famous.

Shows like Cita's have become the backbone of BET's programming, even though many within the black community feel that its emphasis on materialism is too much. According to a recent BET/CBS survey, 68 percent of African Americans polled felt that black people put too much emphasis on possessions, while 48 percent said that rap music and hip hop culture have a "mostly negative influence" on young blacks (the survey did note an interesting discrepancy, however: only 28 percent of blacks between the ages of 18 to 29 viewed hip hop as negative, compared to 55 percent of blacks in the 30 to 44 set.)

Black attitudes like the one in the poll are one of the reasons why the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the umbrella organization for the nine major black fraternities and sororities, was considering leading a boycott of BET to pressure the network to change aspects of its programming. Members of the Council met with BET CEO Robert Johnson on September 27 to discuss their concerns, but left the meeting unsatisfied. On November 2, the Council drafted a letter to Johnson threatening to boycott the network, although it was never sent to him.

"As discussed with you and your staff, we believe that BET does not operate in the best interest of the African American community," reads the letter, which has been widely circulated on the Internet. "Your responses to our concerns were not only unacceptable but were also insulting. We raised concerns with you about the type of videos shown on BET that have a negative influence on our community, particularly our youth. We believe that these videos are an exploitation of African American youth."

The letter goes on to denounce BET's perceived failure to support black businesses and institutions, calling the network's relationship with the black community "woefully insensitive." Norma Solomon White, the Council's chairwoman, said that if the letter is sent to Johnson "there will be revisions" to incorporate ideas discussed at the North American Inter-fraternity Conference two weeks ago.

While the boycott was called off, it is not the first time BET has drawn fire. Since its inception, many African Americans have been put off by its racy videos, risqué humor and reruns of old black sitcoms, and accused it of perpetuating black stereotypes.

Aaron McGruder, whose nationally syndicated Boondocks comic strip has made mocking BET a staple, says he feels that the network has let black people down. "What's frustrating is BET's potential," said McGruder. "We all see enormous potential that is being squandered every day ... When you're in a position to change people's lives ... and you choose not to because you've taken the lazy way out with cheap shows that pander to sex and violence and money, it's just inexcusable."

Harrison Chastang, a media analyst and board member of Media Alliance, a San Francisco media watch group, said that many prominent African Americans and black organizations helped support BET at its inception by calling cable providers and demanding that they carry the station.

"When BET was first created, African Americans envisioned a network that would reflect the true perspectives of black people worldwide," said Chastang. "But in reality, before it was purchased by Viacom, it was little more than a vehicle for the recording companies to push their products via black videos."

According to Chastang, since Viacom purchased BET in the fall of 2000 criticism of the network has grown.

"There has been a growing displeasure with BET among many African Americans, because of the lack of positive content on the station," said Chastang. "This criticism has been exacerbated after the Viacom deal when BET was sold."

While there have been small pockets of criticism in the past, negative feelings reached new heights after BET fired Tavis Smiley, the former host of BET Tonight, the network's popular evening news program, in April after he sold ABC News a taped interview he conducted with Sara Jane Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive. Smiley's interview, which aired on PrimeTime Live, garnered high ratings for ABC, upsetting executives at Viacom, since Smiley had not offered the interview to BET or CBS, another Viacom property.

Smiley's firing was criticized by several African American pundits and media figures, including Tom Joyner, whose national radio program reaches an estimated 7 million black listeners every day. And the National Pan-Hellenic Council wrote to Johnson to express its alarm, saying, "Members of these nine organizations are concerned about the termination of one of our fraternity members, Tavis Smiley."

Robert Johnson has defended his decision to fire Smiley and has also denied any responsibility for the quality of BET's programming. "These are your children listening to this music, they're writing the songs, they appear in the videos -- it's not me," said Johnson at a meeting last year with a group of black journalists. "I don't create this stuff, we just play it."

Debra Lee, BET's president and chief operating officer, has been more diplomatic. At the September meeting with the Pan-Hellenic Council, she explained that all the videos that appear on BET are approved before broadcast, and claimed that the network had expressed concerns about content to the record industry. "We explained we do have a video review committee and we have asked labels to make changes," said Lee.

The National Pan-Hellenic Council carries serious clout within the black community. The organization was instrumental in helping to organize and support the Million Man March on Washington, DC, which drew an estimated 900,000 people to the capital in 1995. But despite the group's power, many question whether most sorority and fraternity members, to say nothing of the African American population at large, would support a boycott of BET. And many also wonder if it would even be effective.

BET is available in more than 60 million of the 75 million homes that have cable television, and many of its shows have solid ratings in a segmented cable niche market. Despite all of the criticisms raised over the years, many blacks watch BET on a daily basis. And the network is certainly not the only source of black music videos.

"Personally, I feel that a boycott will not have much of an impact and that people will turn the videos on and watch them anyway," said Steven Walker, a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. "The videos shown on BET are shown on other networks. The same Busta Rhymes video will be on BET, VH1 and MTV."

Walker said that he understands the Council's position, but would not support a boycott because he does not want to be seen as a hypocrite, since he watches the network from time to time.

Tahirah Works, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, believes it's wrong to try to force BET to abandon certain types of programming, since African Americans are not a monolithic group and that what pleases some will not please others.

"As a group, we need a variety of shows that cater towards various social and economic groups, ages and cultures on BET," said Works. "Whereas I do not condone programs that to me make African Americans appear to be 'ghetto,' I recognize that there are those in our community who relate to and appreciate that type of programming.... You have good stuff and bad stuff, but you cannot please everyone."

Stanley Crouch, a columnist with the New York Daily News who has called for a boycott of BET in the past and has long criticized aspects of black popular culture, says it's hypocritical to just focus on the network.

"BET is only part of the problem," said Crouch. "Those calling the boycott have not decided to boycott the rap industry. They have not taken a stand on the rampant materialism that is in that industry. They have not stood up against the negativity that can be seen in some of these videos.... I do not think that Bob Johnson is the beast that people make him out to be. But if you go after him, go after all of them."

For his part, Crouch sees the questionable efficacy of a BET boycott as irrelevant. "You do not call a boycott to see if it will be effective," he said. "You call it because it has to be done."

Lee Hubbard writes on urban issues and media for various publications. He can be reached by e-mail at superle@hotmail.com for any questions or comments.

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