by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Last fall, BET’s President, Debra Lee, commented on the style of programming being offered by her network and the response from her viewers. At the same time, Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET, criticized the network for it’s offerings, stating that the company squandered a chance to give black America a voice. Lee and Johnson’s remarks open the door for an intriguing dialogue about the power of media to shape minds, and whether or not we’ve been using this power responsibly.
In an article on TheRoot.com, Sheryl Huggins Solomon asked if black people really want to have a voice at all. Her measuring stick of whether or not we want that voice appears to be related to our decision to watch the BET show hosted by TJ Holmes, “Don’t Sleep!” I became immediately concerned with Sheryl’s column, because it seemed to argue that it’s the audience’s fault that BET has become determined to produce toxic programming. Also, the idea of daring black people to support your event in order to prove their blackness is not much different from what Tavis Smiley did to President Obama back when he called him out for not attending his “State of the Black Union” event back in 2008.
At a screening for a new BET documentary, someone asked Lee if the network was going to aim for better programming, with Lee stating that, “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 last week 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.”
Lee then went on to explain that the ratings game is what drives her to continue with content that is less than desirable:
“To be honest, the ratings haven’t been great in the past two weeks (referring to Holmes’ show). Our audience always says they want this kind of programming, but they don’t show up,” Lee said.
Here’s the challenge for Debra Lee. First, when you consider the impact that positive programming is going to have on your audience, you have to realize what kind of audience you’ve created. I can’t tell you how many educated black folks I’ve met who simply say, “I refuse to watch BET anymore.” So, effectively, a disproportionate chunk of the BET audience might consist of people who either enjoy brain dead programming or only look to BET to give them brain dead programming. You can’t give your child candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner until he’s 10 years old, and then expect him to become a Vegan.
The second problem for BET (which I discuss in more detail in my book, “Black American Money
“) is capitalism. As a Finance Professor, I teach on Capitalism all the time. As a black man, I’ve noted how our addiction to hardcore capitalism has made it nearly impossible for African Americans to achieve liberation as a people. Raw capitalism effectively convinces you that money is the most important thing in the world….Or, as a rapper on BET might say, “If it don’t make dolluhs shawty, then it don’t make sense.” The easiest path to slavery is to form an addiction to a commodity that you do not control.
The problem with the “Money Rules” methodology is that it doesn’t make much room for a double bottom line that also incorporates social responsibility as part of your business model. So, if TJ Holmes gets a million viewers and Lil Wayne gets 1.5 million, capitalism tells you to drop TJ so you can show more of Weezy. What this model fails to consider is that the creation of more toxic programming further undermines the intellectual quality of your audience, making it even more difficult for the next TJ Holmes to have a successful show. This also fails to mention the negative externalities produced by teaching a million black kids to act like Lil Wayne.
My advice to Debra Lee? Make your money, but allow the garbage to subsidize the intellectual health food. TJ’s show might not make as much money as the BET Awards, but he is an intelligent black man, a great role model, and someone with the capacity to bring positive issues to light for a struggling community. The fat child who’s been given candy his whole life might not like the vegetables at first, but if you throw in a bit of health food with the fattening stuff, he might actually learn to appreciate it. Remember: Billionaire Bob Johnson could have still made several hundred million dollars by creating more conscientious programming. I don’t fault the brother for making money; instead, I fault him for him for WORSHIPPING money at the expense of his own community. Again, I’m a Finance professor, so I understand the value and power of a dollar bill.
BET’s audience is a reflection of what the network has become over the years, and with the democratization of media, they’ve lost some of their relevance. To regain a quality audience that appreciates quality programming, we can’t just rely on money-hungry, myopic investments that only allow you to consider next quarter’s profit margin. But the challenge for BET is that when white people own you, your latitude for creating positive black programming is severely diminished, since the white executive in the suburbs could care less if the network he runs is teaching black boys to murder one another in the street. This, my friends, is why we must have more black-owned, conscientious media, for the only way to true freedom is to learn how to control our own public imagery.