To Us, BET Was More Than a Business — It Was Ours
BET is once again the topic of conversation among young Black folks but does it mean the same to them as it did to us?
Let me state for the record, I had a love/hate relationship with BET as far back as I can remember.
It was those damn late night, and practically all Sunday informecials. It was their refusal for a long time to play Rap videos. It was so many things…how they in DC and don’t show no Go-Go? Why don’t they have original programming?
So when I was asked about why don’t I write about the impact BET had on our young lives I was reluctant. But then I got the run down: Video Soul, Rap City, BET News, Teen Summit, 106 & Park, I cried ‘mercy’ before anything else could be mentioned.
Previously I spoke of our Black Landscape. Well, BET was a part of that. And growing up, it was all new. As we’ve mentioned in the other articles in the Imagery and the Black Psyche Series, initially, we grew up not seeing ourselves and then slowly we began to be represented in Media…on our own terms.
BET may have not been great, but it was ours…or that’s how we felt. But really, BET wasn’t created to make people feel good. It was and is a business. We’ll talk about that and the very slim tightrope one must balance between commerce and responsibility.
I was at my niece’s elementary New Orleans-themed recital in a lovely, newly designed East Atlanta school auditorium. Before the performance, there was a group of six girls who were working on a dance routine. One of the girls cued her cellphone and “Candy Girl” came on. Surprisingly, all the girls knew the words and they all had their New Edition dance moves down.
It’s safe to say that the New Edition Story was a success.
The three part series was watched by young and old and shined a proper light on the group that was the foundation for the Boyz to Mens, 112s, Soul IV Reals, & B2Ks.
We wrote about New Edition’s influence in How Rap Obliterated R&B and it’s been great to see the affect that the series has had. But for all of these young people who have grabbed ahold of New Edition and their legacy have they also taken on the channel BET as their own? Do they turn to BET as a place to find themselves? Or is BET just another option among the hundreds of other options that have Black people represented?
Let’s first look at what it meant to Black people coming of age in the 1970s and 80s.
What did we have? We had: Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, What’s Happening!!, Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life, Gimme a Break!, Benson — we had Silver Spoons, and eventually the Cosby Show. That was what we had as far as Black representation was concerned on the boob tube.
The promise that surfaced after the Newark Uprisings in the form of Black produced shows popping up from coast to coast had fizzled away and by the time of the Reagan Administration, we were back to being the source of humor and entertainment for white execs.
You may still love many if not all those shows. They may bring up a strong feeling of nostalgia. I certainly think fondly of many of them. But I also remember how refreshing Eddie Murphy was.
The first time we saw Eddie Murphy on SNL was like a breath of fresh air. Eddie Murphy was the “realest” Black person that we had ever seen on screen. His Buckwheat, Stevie Wonder, Mr. Robinson, his presence and attitude, it was humor that we could relate to and that Winter of 81 suddenly all of those other Black characters seemed a bit “off.”
Around that time, BET was a year old, aired on Fridays and Saturdays, and was only on the air for two hours a pop. Black Entertainment Television (BET) was started by Robert Johnson, then 33 year olds. A former Lobbyist, Johnson made connections with many of the early cable barons long before he thought to start his own (network).
I know I’ve written this in several places but up until the mid to late 70s, we lived in a world with ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS…and that was basically it. When you have limited choices like that, you take what you can get. Although HBO started in 1972, we ain’t know anyone to have that special antenna and box until Aiyetoro KMT’s family got one in 79.
This is around the time that the skeleton of what we now know as “basic cable” was formed. CSPAN (Mar 79), ESPN (Sep 79), BET (Jan 80), USA (Apr 80), CNN (July 80), Bravo (Dec 80), MTV (Aug 81), are just some of the channels that had their debut between 79–81.
I’ve read the oral histories of MTV & ESPN where there was doubt that anyone would want to watch a channel dedicated to nothing but music (MTV) or sports (ESPN). The same was said about news (CNN). No one imagined that such niche channels would find an audience. You can only imagine the response given to talk about an all-Black channel.
As we mentioned here, Tony Brown predicted that Cable would be the place for Black people to create a platform. This platform could provide a counterbalance to the plethora of humorous roles that Black folk populated on the Networks. Johnson too saw this and considered the idea of creating such a space. He mentioned on Conversations in 1980 that it could be something as simple as having a game show that had Black humor with Black hosts.
Johnson found an ally in John Malone who had his hands in several early Cable Channels. Malone like many others was looking to diversify his Cable portfolio and saw that Robert Johnson was the type who you could “invest money with and he wouldn’t embarrass you.” Based on Malone’s statements, one of the ways that he could have been embarrassed was if the channel had become “radical.” Johnson was a business man, first and never let being Black “get in the way” of that.
Because of that, Malone felt safe investing $500,000 in Johnson who immediately secured seven advertisers for his two hour block of programming. In three years, BET would become a 24 hour Network.
We ain’t have cable ‘round Grape Street.
It wasn’t until we went to stay with our father at good o’ Falcon Court North, NJ that we were finally able to overdose on choice. This is when we became addicted to Kung Fu movies from USA’s Kung Fu Theater, HBO had Octopussy damn near on repeat, and finally…at long last we could watch videos with Black folk in em.
As I wrote about in Video Birthed the Rap Star the majority of the videos we saw when we started watching Teletunes were New Wave or Black Brits, we rarely saw Black American videos. But here we were…on a Black channel…with a Black host, Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul, watching videos of artists that we knew and loved.
BET started showing videos when they moved to a six hour, seven day a week schedule. In those days, programming was hard to come by. The network had yet to acquire studio space and still filled its time slot with older movies, but Johnson programmed in HBCU sports and also acquired the rights to the Bobby Jones Gospel Hour…but still it wasn’t enough. Neither were the informercials which was another stream of income. After all was said in done, there would still be fifteen minutes or so left.
They filled that time with music videos.
Video Soul began in 1981 as a half hour show but by the time we first saw it in 84, the program was in its full, two-hour glory. Extending the show and what it entailed fell on employee number 6, the 25-year old Jefferi Lee who was responsible for hiring Donnie Simpson, already a popular D.C. disc jockey and the man who would hold the Video Soul Host chair up until 1996.
The reason we were able to see BET in New Jersey was due to the expansion fueled by Bob Johnson’s partnership with HBO who bought 15 percent equity in the network. Don Anderson, also a former lobbyist, was heading up HBO’s West Coast operations when he took on the tasks of increasing advertising (he helped BET develop a rate card) and more than doubled BET’s subscribers.
On October 1, 1984 BET went to its 24-hour format.
The years that followed brought us Midnight Love (85), the networks slow jam, Quiet Storm, video ballad block, BET News (86), the first Black news show which was hosted by Ed Gordon, Teen Summit (89), that discussed teen issues and often had musical guests or other prominent Black folk, BET Talk (96) with Tavis Smiley, that’s pretty damn self-explanatory. BET even landed the first interview with O.J. Simpson after he was found not guilty in the murder of Nicole Simpson & Ronald Goldman, a program titled OJ Simpson, Beyond the Verdict.
BET was one of our go to channels.
Then the bombshell happened. BET Holdings was reported to on the blocks and Viacom was the buyer — the price — $2.34 Billion dollars. Black people cried out that Robert Johnson was a sellout, that we lose the only network that we considered our own. The 10th largest Black-owned company would be changing hands and we felt betrayed.
For Johnson, it was a sound business decision. He started the network with a $15,000 loan and a $500,000 stake. He was now a billionaire…and unapologetic.
We are the only black network in town, so everybody has poured their burdens and obligations on BET, but we can’t solve everybody’s desires for BET. We have to be focused on running this as a profit maximization business. Robert Johnson
At the time (2001), 70% of BET’s content was music videos. Which was also the case at MTV and VH1. Music videos had reached a zenith by that time, budgets had increased, and record sells were astronomical…particularly for rap music.
Since 1998, Carson Daly’s TRL ruled the live-audience, music show roost. The format was simple: bring in guests, show clips of the top ten requested videos, every so often a performance — repeat.
Anything that Carson Daly’s in will be hella vanilla, so when AJ & Free popped up on BET’s 106 and Park, September of 2000, the audience slowly trickled over to BET.
106 and Park was far from vanilla. The set, to this writer’s eyes was gaudy, they had a young Black audience, dance contests, rap battles, and all the Rap & R&B guests.
Two years later, 106 and Park would overtake TRL in ratings.
Another source of controversy was BET Uncut, the Wednesday thru Friday 3am show that aired uncensored videos from 2001 to 2006. Of course anyone who knows anything about BET Uncut knows that the controversy came to a head when Nelly slid his credit card twince Whyte Chocolate’s butt cheeks in the 2003 “Tip Drill” video.
While Nelly maintains that the idea for the swipe was Chocolate’s idea, the act was still done by him, in his video, and the backlash still haunts him fourteen years later. Ms. Chocolate has moved beyond stripping, is married, and sells custom clothing for a living.
For many people in the Black community, BET had become just another form of Black exploitation. I certainly was among those people. Me and my friends often joked, “I don’t even know what CHANNEL BET is on.”
The Billboard Music Awards had Madonna do the tribute to Prince.
It was one of those gasp moments on Black Twitter where all most could muster at first was “WTF?!?” I wrote about what Prince meant to me in the “The Last of the Triumvirate” — so you know I was disgusted.
When I saw the Tweet from BET, “Yeah, we saw that. Don’t worry. We Got You.” I first thought, “oh shit, that’s Black as Hell,” then I next thought, “now that’s smart.”
It was the first time I checked for BET in at least a decade.
Needless to say, it was a watershed moment for the network. Jennifer Hudson, Bilal, & Sheila E tore the roof off the motha sucka and made Prince Lovers proud. BET won with that.
Apparently for a lot of people, BET had been winning.
At least 4 million people had tuned in for the July 2013 premiere of Being Mary Jane and have stayed with the show over the years, live tweeting and investing in the characters.
Created by Mara Brock Akil who also created Girlfriends & The Game, continued her run of success with Jane and brought BET their second blockbuster original series (The Game was the first, its BET premier clocked 7.7 million viewers).
The network has continued to develop in that vein. Original programming is no longer the way of the future; it’s a necessity and BET has stepped to the plate swinging.
In their 2016 Upfront, BET announced five original series and the fruits of that harvest are starting to manifest. The New Edition Story hit that 4.4 million viewer mark but more importantly (for advertisers) was 2.6 of those viewers were in the highly coveted 19–49 bracket.
While The Quad and Madiba may not have fared as well, BET is definitely making attempts at driving the conversation.
Despite this new direction and success, I have to ask the question — do viewers still view BET as a Black channel? By now, it’s common knowledge that the network is owned by Viacom and that the focus is on turning a profit.
But how much is different? While people may nostalgically long for Rap City or Teen Summit, as Stephen Hill pointed out on the Rap Radar podcast, financially, those shows no longer make sense.
Throughout BET’s history, the shows that aired have either been put on the air out of necessity or opportunity but they have always made money.
We can no longer complain about original programming — there will be more of that to come. The head execs are still Black and there are low brow (Meet the Browns) to high brow (Madiba) shows being aired.
I have to chalk my feelings of nostalgia for the old BET up to seeing the world through young, immature eyes. I had no idea what was at work to bring that network to my home. I certainly wasn’t aware of all the moves Robert Johnson made to make BET a success.
As a man in his 40s, I see BET for what it is — a successful business. They might not be making programs for me, I certainly don’t feel like their audience. But someone is…enough of us to make advertisers feel it’s worth their money to buy time on the network. So it’s their channel. Not mine. Never has been.