For more that 20 years BET (Black Entertainment Television) has bore the not so unique burden of representing an entire ethnic community. While the desire to cater to the entertainment, news, and cultural needs of African-Americans was laudable, though damn near impossible, it also bore for the BET the additional burden of accountability. For more than a decade, BET valiantly lived up to the expectations of a relatively small, (by cable standards) but demanding base of subscribers, largely located in the Washington DC area and other large metropolises. Initially founded by Robert Johnson with start-up money acquired from TCI, the company, now largely owned by Johnson who bought out share holders two years ago, is praised by Forbes Magazine as one of the “best” small businesses in America. With BET now supported by a base of over 55 million subscribers, BET Holdings boasts a burgeoning communications empire that includes Emerge magazine, three separate cable channels, including BET on Jazz, Arabesque publishing, several restaurants and soundstages and an Internet property BET.Com, which just debuted this February. While Johnson has clearly brought to fruition a corporate dream barely realized by Berry Gordy two generations ago, he is currently embroiled in a bitter public debate with a 25-year-old cartoonist.
To be sure Aaron McGruder is no ordinary 25-year-old. Frequently referred to as the first Hip-Hop comic strip, McGruder’s strip, The Boondocks, which initially appeared in a student magazine at the University of Maryland, is currently nationally syndicated in over 250 daily newspapers. The strip follows the travails of not yet teen-aged brothers Huey, a budding neo-cultural nationalist and Riley, a hood-rat in training, as they confront the challenges of contemporary suburbia. McGruder is the embodiment of what I refer to as the “Post-Soul” generation of black artists and intellectuals. This “tweener” generation aged somewhere between SNCC veterans and the characters portrayed in The Boondocks is the first generation raised on Hip-Hop to come to public voice. Best represented by 30-something writers Joan Morgan and Kevin Powell, comedian Chris Rock, scholar S. Craig Watkins and Hip-Hop artist Common (Sense) this cadre of thinkers and artists has willingly confronted the contradictions of late-stage blackness for public consumption. To be sure, these folks have taken Trey Ellis’s notion of a “New Black Aesthetic” to another level, elevating self-critique, of both themselves and the larger black community, to a fine art. While some may question their need to publicly critique the imperfections within, among other things, contemporary black culture, the reality is that in an era in which every aspect of human existence is so thoroughly commodified, there is no such thing as “airing dirty laundry.” No longer governed or constrained by the logic of segregation, folks are now free to fully explore the complexities of black life and to “playa-hate” those who deserve the hate. (Holla if ya hear me, Puffy.) But, tell that to Bob Johnson.
McGruder peeked Johnson’s attention, when the former turned his satirical eye to BET late last year. One strip featured Huey complaining to his local cable provider about the litany of infomercials featured during BET’s Sunday programming. Other than the immensely popular Bobby Jones Gospel (talk about a show in need of a post-Soul critique) and the solid news program Lead Story, which some tune in to just to watch black neo-con Armstrong Williams and Emerge editor George Curry play the ideological “Dozens,” much of Sunday’s programming is centered on an assortment of kitchen gadgets, which all seem to be created by George Forman. These infomercials, which are shown during the channel’s weakest daytime viewership (would you watch a rerun of Sparks: the Next Generation or the NBA if you had the choice?), generates substantial cash for the company, hence the need for so many stations to use the programming during off-peak hours. It is such dynamics that led Huey, in a later strip, to question his adherence to the “economic philosophy of Black Nationalism” and the belief that companies like BET would “act in the best interest of Black America.” Huey concludes, “Let’s just say BET shot a few holes in that theory.”
But it is channel’s programming during it’s peak hours that has raised the ire of some viewers and been the brunt of jokes by McGruder. In an October issue of Newsweek, the increasing dis-satisfaction with BET was addressed, with concerns raised by everyone from comics paid below scale for their appearances on the highly rated ComicView to viewers concerned with the stations reliance on music videos. It was no doubt this article that stimulated McGruder to “clown” BET in the first place. Playing the race card like a three-card monty game on 125th Street, Johnson used the channel’s BET Talk with Tavis Smiley (who was mysteriously missing that evening) to respond. Johnson representative, former boxing promoter Butch Lewis (who makes Don King look as innocent as a Boy Scout troop leader from Madison, WI), addressed the charges leveled in the Newsweek article suggesting that black viewers close ranks in support of BET and it’s embattled CEO, singling out former ComicView host D.L Hughley, who is quoted in the article, as ungrateful for the support the channel gave him early in his career. Given the monopoly that BET seemingly holds on the televisual presentation of black life and culture, many artists and commentators, including this one, have been reticent to publicly critique BET for the fear of losing access to the visibility that BET obviously affords. It is of course this very knee-jerk consumer nationalism that is at the core of many of McGruder’s criticisms.
The stimulus for much of the current criticism of BET is the utter distaste for the current programming schedule. After years of relying on re-runs that even UPN didn’t want, expectations were high that the station’s immense growth would translate into original and entertaining programming. Since the fall of 1996, the channel has been compelled to chase the same audience demographic that has transformed black radio into “kiddy day at GHETTO FAB, INC.” As cultural critic Nicole Johnson suggests, “booty and bling-bling” have been at the cornerstone of black video production, since the release of “Rump Shaker” a little less than 10 years ago, and BET has no doubt cornered that market. They have also cornered the market on inane and insulting programming. One of the channel’s new video shows, Jamm Zone, is hosted by a “cyber-hoochie” named ‘Cita (apparently short for Mamacita), who wields ebonics like a ginsu knife and embodies all of the worse negative stereotypes associated with black women with requisite Venus Hottentot frame. The use of a cyber host is very much in line with the kind of “plantation” logic that pervades BET’s business strategies. The late night talk show, Live from LA also premiered in the fall with host Michael Colyar and co-host Rachel, who formerly hosted the video show Planet Groove. In less than six-months, Colyar has been transformed from a solid comedian into “Zip Coon” and Rachel is little more than a sex-prop (though much less interesting than ‘Cita). As even McGruder admitted in a recent strip, the show is responsible for employing a substantial amount of “black writers, producers, actors and directors” but as Huey later contends, “whether or not any of these people actually should be employed” is another issue.
In response to a subsequent Washington Post article, that also included references to The Boondocks, Johnson simply referred to McGruder as “simple-minded.” On the real, McGruder is often too damn smart for his audiences. One strip, in which Huey begins to write a full-length manuscript critiquing black neo-Con Ward Connerly, references Wu-Tang member Raekwon, black academics Francis Cress Welsing and “Skip” Gates (he of the post-modern Tuskeegee located in Cambridge), and talk show host Charlie Rose. Very few of McGruder’s readers, excepting a small cadre of black graduate students in the Humanities, could fathom such a disparate collection of people in a four-panel strip. Most readers also fail to realize that Huey’s character is himself a critique of certain antiquated forms of Black Nationalism, just as Riley is a vehicle to examine the excesses of pop culture and its effects of youthful identities. But such complexities also generate fear; Witness the censuring of the strip during a recent Whitney Houston story-line (just say no) or The Buffalo News‘s censure of the “Free Jolly Jenkins” story-line, which challenged the myth of Santa Claus.
Recently, BET has taken spin control to another level by initiating its first national ad campaign entitled “Black Star Power” (any Garveyites in the house?). While the campaign was probably initially intended to coincide with the birth of BET.com, it has no doubt helped to counter audiences concerns about the channel’s programming. During earlier eras of racial segregation, black consumer mistrust of black businesses was fostered by the fact that many of these companies were community monopolies that could not be held accountable for bad business ethics because of the constraints placed on black consumption because of segregation. Lacking significant competition for much of its life BET now faces challenges from Major Broadcasting Corp (MBC), which specializes in Gospel programming, and New Urban Entertainment Television (NUET), which will debut later this year. Both have benefited from an affiliation deal with AT&T that will deliver 10 million subscribers and another 5 million upon completion of the AT&T and MediaOne Group merger. Ironically, BET is also negotiating with AT&T to create BET II, to meet the demands of more mature audiences. While the impact of these developments remains to be seen, critics like McGruder’s and others have forced the hands of “black owned” companies by demanding that they be held accountable to the needs of their core consumers. The bottom line is that dirty laundry is still just that.