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Viacom's BET Turns into ET
By George E. Curry
Dec 10, 2002

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Remember when your mother was about to administer a whipping and told you, “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you”? You didn’t believe it. Nor should you believe it when a successful African-American firm sells out to a White one while pledging that after the sale, Black consumers will not get hurt.

If we needed a reminder, we got a harsh one last week when Black Entertainment Television announced that it will eliminate “Lead Story,” “BET Tonight with Ed Gordon” and “Teen Summit.” With one public announcement, BET became ET—empty television.

Even though I never cared for all the rump-shaking – and I recognized that BET programming was never aimed at my generation – I defended the network because even with all of its shortcomings, BET had a few programs that were unique.

“BET Tonight,” whether hosted by Ed Gordon or Tavis Smiley, was an excellent outlet for newsmakers and entertainers. “Lead Story,” where I served as a regular panelist for more than seven years, gave newsmakers—Black and White—an opportunity to be questioned by top-flight African-American journalists.

At least up until moderator Cheryl Martin and panelist DeWayne Wickham of “USA Today”/Gannett News Service left the show earlier this year and the regular panelists began appearing irregularly, it was the only program where Black newsmakers and Black journalists could regularly, sometimes heatedly, exchange views in an incisive and substantive manner on what was best for Black America.

“Teen Summit” was the only program where the views and insights of Black teenagers, not those who proclaim to speak for them, were not only heard, but welcomed.
BET’s weekday news show has been spared, at least for now. However, there are no guarantees that once the network’s contract with CBS expires, it won’t go the way of the other three programs.

Unless they are replaced by similar shows—and that’s a big if—BET will be little more than a Black MTV. There’s nothing wrong with a Black MTV if we had a Black CBS, as Whites do. Not only do they have CBS, they have ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, C-SPAN and much more.

In fairness to BET founder Bob Johnson, it’s too much to expect that one Black network could fill all of the needs of Black America. But I know how proud Bob was of “Lead Story”—he says it was his favorite program—“BET Tonight with Ed Gordon” and “Teen Summit.” And when they were securely on the air—even as the “The Boondocks” comic strip took regular jabs at the network—African-Americans had a reason to tune in to BET.

At least we could tune in to serious programs that provided perspectives on issues of importance to our community. Now, there are fewer reasons to let our remotes stop on BET. In fact, if the news show is removed, there is nothing on the network that would attract my attention. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Some people see it as progress when an African-American firm is sold to a conglomerate such as Viacom. For Bob Johnson, the businessman, that is progress, the American Dream. But for most Black Americans, it’s the American Nightmare. When the few programs on TV that require us to use what we have from the neck up are taken off the air, what’s left is indistinguishable from what we see on the White video channels.

Sadly, we’re seeing a trend. In addition to BET, we’ve lost Motown, Johnson Products and even some of our Black funeral homes. AOL Time Warner has purchased 49 percent of “Essence” magazine (some have noticed changes there, too) and 100 percent of Africanna.com. The “Chicago Tribune” owns Blackvoices.com.

With Whites becoming a minority in the U.S. in the next 50 years, just as they already are in the world, they will continue to buy Black-owned companies. And each time, as we’ve seen with BET, the pattern will be the same.

First, there will be a major announcement proclaiming how the influx of cash will strengthen the Black company without changing its basic character. The head of the company will be retained to run the unit for a specified period, supposedly offering further assurance that things will not change that much. And after the sale is completed and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t show up at the door, the White-owned “Black” company is viewed in the same light as any other division—to provide mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.

The Black seller of the firm makes out like a bandit and the Black community is left dazed, wondering why we were so easily duped.

Next Column: Poor Substitute for Affirmative Action

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