Most Americans who do not watch BET know very little about BET aka Black Entertainment Television. Many only know it as that channel with all the African American shows or the channel that used to have all those raunchy rap music videos. Well there is much more to BET than what first meets the eye. BET was created by Robert L Johnson on January 25th 1980. It was a weekly two hour block of television shows on Nickelodeon until 1983 when BET became its very own television channel. This was a very profound moment in black history because African Americans had never before had a television channel they could call their own. It was made by African Americans, for African Americans.
The first shows on BET were made to build up the black community. They included Our Voice with Bev Smith and Weekly with Ed Gordon. Many issues covered in these shows included racism, riots, and sexuality. These shows were an important form of education for black youth. BET also helped African Americans reach some very significant milestones. In 1991, BET was the first black controlled company to be on the New York Stock Exchange. And only ten years later the original founder of BET became the first African American billionaire. However, things took a tragic turn for BET in 2003 when Robert L Johnson sold the channel to Viacom (the owner of MTV and VH1) for $3 billion. BET was no longer a black owned company.
With this change in ownership came a change in the quality of shows. Previously, BET’s mission was to upgrade the African American image and focus more on culture than bad stereotypes. New programs such as Lil Kim: Countdown to Lock Down, BET Uncut, College Hill, Hell Date, and The Game put African Americans in a bad light. Sheila Johnson, former co-founder of BET, feels that the channel has gone down hill since the time she was working there. Many other African American viewers agree with her.
One 20 year old viewer Tyriah Stokes stated,
Growing up BET played a big part because it had a lot of documentaries on African American entertainers, civil rights, and engineers. I can say it was part of culture, the shows plus the latest music. It is no longer the same because its all about commercials and money and getting lots of viewers. There is no soul to it anymore. We went from fighting for our rights to violating them ourselves. Its like our generation doesn’t know its value.
Obviously Viacom’s ownership of the channel has taken an affect on the audience. BET has become more about portraying African Americans as raunchy, outrageous fools. The channel has exploited African American females, portraying them as video girls shaking their half naked bodies in front of rappers. I feel that BET has begun to make a joke out of African American culture. They will show just about anything just to get viewers and it is not just Tyriah Stokes that realizes this. Many influential people including Professor Boyce Watkins and Aaron McGruder (creator of The Boondocks) have taken a stand to BET through a variety of different forms, from academic articles to cartoons.
Many people like Professor Boyce Watkins feel that BET has been detrimental to the improvement of black youth identities. They want to buy into the hyper reality BET creates of black culture. Many young black viewers want to be just like the rappers and video girls in music videos. They want to buy the lifestyle by joining a gang, buying expensive chains, paying for clubs and alcohol, etc. This is a problem because this hyper reality is not reality. Black youth are glorifying the negative stereotypes previous generations have fought so hard against. And unfortunately the reason for this switch is a matter of capitalism.
This begs the questions:
Has BET sold out?
Does the channel care less about improving African American identities than getting many viewers and more about making money?
Is it okay to sell out a race in the conquest of wealth?
Do you feel white generated channels sell their race out?