The excoriation of BET (Black Entertainment Television) began before Debra Lee took the reins as chairwoman and CEO, but she inherited the network’s many critics and all-out haters.
Lee spent time last week addressing some of the criticism that has been leveled at the network during her appearance at Wake Forest. The general knock against BET is that it has thrived by highlighting the worst of the African American community. The celebrity guests and videos that have made shows like “106 & Park” a ratings bonanza are vile and misogynistic, they say, and a far cry from the stated mission of a network that was started in 1980 to uplift and glorify black folks.
The critics may have a point, but there is little focus on the cause and effect factor involved. There was a time when BET aired newscasts and talk shows. Those programs weren’t axed so executives could devote time to more gold chain-wearing, grilled-teeth rappers; they were yanked because few of us tuned-in.
BET uses the same formula that every other network does – high ratings equal longevity, spin-offs and a windfall of advertising dollars. Should the network stunt its growth and success by continuing to invest in programs that no one watches and advertisers avoid?
The sad reality is that the music videos and reality shows that make many of us cringe are ratings successes. Maury Povich has been allowed to air those dreadful paternity test shows for the last two decades because people watch in droves. The grammar-challenged “Real Housewives” rule the airways because we’d rather watch their antics than be intellectually stimulated elsewhere. We’d rather watch Tyler Perry – God bless him – drop one-liners in a dress than serious dramas about the Tuskegee airmen (“Red Tails”) and injustice (“Fruitvale Station”).
Our ire should be directed at ourselves. The dumb-down effect has taken hold of our community. Too many of us want drive-thru entertainment – simple, mind-numbing programs that provide laughs, bling and no substance what-so-ever. BET could air deep, thought-provoking shows all day and all night long, but it would not fix the problem. (It wouldn’t draw many viewers either.)
We are not saying that critics are completely without merit in condemning BET, but it is easy to attack symbols. Walmart certainly has its issues, but folks pounce on it as the poster-child of a corporate retail system in which mom-and-pop stores founder and workers have a tough time making ends meet.
BET is in a similar boat. The real problem is that too many African American children have a television set as a babysitter and too many of use consider vulgarity, fighting and twerking as appropriate forms of entertainment. If we raise our bar, perhaps BET will follow suit.