Is BET bad for blacks?

2014-10-07 18:45

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So Black Entertainment Television (BET) has hit South Africa, promising to be a “fun, relevant and inspirational general entertainment” space for black viewers.

Except, I’ve heard otherwise.

BET was launched in the US in 1983 to represent the minority black population on screen.

It didn’t take long, though, for the channel to be accused of becoming a dumping ground for endless booty-rap videos and trashy Jerry Springer-esque talk shows, rolling out lowbrow entertainment that portrayed its audience in the worst possible light.

Many influential African-Americans, including Spike Lee and the creator of The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder, have lambasted the channel.

In one Boondocks episode, young revolutionary Huey Freeman goes on a hunger strike, saying that he will not eat until there is a public apology for creating BET.

‘I don’t watch it’

In fact, in an interview in 2010, BET’s co-founder, Sheila Johnson, said she was “ashamed” of what the network had become.

“I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it,” she said.

“When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine of television. We had public affairs programming. We had news?...?But then the video revolution started up?...?And I remember during those days, we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists?...?and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”

Alex Okosi, the boss of Viacom Africa, which is the network that will distribute BET here, wouldn’t be drawn in an email question on whether he thought the channel perpetuated negative stereotypes.

“BET International offers a broad programming mix, and covers chat, drama, reality, documentary, comedy, music, movies, news specials and more. The channel perpetuates a positive and rounded view of black culture,” he said.

Okosi mentioned some programmes that “prove” BET is a well-rounded, informative channel: “The channel covered the passing of Mr Mandela in depth, and has also covered Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana. Shows like Vindicated tell the story of people who were wrongly convicted and their journey to clear their names.”

Mixed bag

I asked Kagendo Mbogori, a blogger based in the US, what she thinks.

“A comment from many black women and men in entertainment is that there is no space for them in mainstream Hollywood to play the lead,” she said.

“So many take on the BET roles, the ones that won’t give them Emmys, the one’s that will give them American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awards and an opportunity to earn a salary.

“I understand that not every show will depict black America in a good light, but BET caters to people who will be otherwise dismissed by a majority white America.”

So BET sounds like a mixed bag, but then again, it’s not like every channel on DStv is a bastion of intelligent viewing.

I mean, there’s the History Channel that never shows history, opting instead for shows like Fish Tank Kings and Swamp People.

I guess we’ll just have to take Okosi’s word for it and decide for ourselves as BET’s line-up plays across our screens.

»?BET airs on DStv channel 135

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