by Dr. Boyce Watkins
I’ve done a lot of work with various media outlets over the years, but it has left me relatively unsatisfied. The reason for my concern is that, as a business school professor, I tend to notice ownership structure, incentives and the role that capitalist organizations have played in the oppression and control of black people. Like infants being fed Vodka in their baby bottles, black people are consistently doused with an overwhelming amount of unhealthy propaganda, leading many of us to live our lives as the intellectual version of the walking dead.
There is no network that embodies this problematic disparity more than Black Entertainment Television (BET). I love BET for what it could have been, but I hate the network for what it chooses to be. BET has become a case study for all that can go wrong from a one-dimensional focus on corporate profitability with almost no concern for the externalities being created by destructive and irresponsible content. Even worse is that BET is ultimately run and controlled by Viacom, a company headed by executives who don’t have to go home to gun violence, sagging pants, educational underachievement and all the other cultural deformities that come from consuming weaponized psychological poison for the entire day.
One ray of hope for BET was the new show, “Don’t Sleep!” hosted by TJ Holmes. Almost no new show in the history of BET has generated as much buzz in the black community, at least among those with more than a 10th-grade reading level. Like the drunk ass uncle who suddenly decides that he wants to take care of his kids, BET claimed that it was trying to turn over a new leaf and give us something that makes the black community better and not worse.
The problem for BET, similar to the uncle who suddenly decides to be a father, is the lack of trust. The network has abused our brains with the kind of garbage that could serve as a How-to Guide for the Willie Lynch syndrome and produced its content with almost no degree of corporate accountability. I even remember watching the rapper Wiz Khalifa perform a song (“On my Level”) where he bragged to an audience full of teenagers about “being sloppy drunk looking for the keys to my car.” Most of us turned off BET years ago and can’t even find it on our cable guide. Like the ex-girlfriend who slept with your best friend and stole your money, most of us feel that we escaped from the BET psychological plantation and can’t quite stomach the idea of coming back.
But TJ’s show seemed different and special. Holmes took his powerful brand away from the lilly white safe havens of CNN and brought it back to his community. Many of us hearing about the amazing guests and quality conversations on the show were saying, “I think I’m going to take a look.” The trust was coming back, and people were ready to take notice.
But before you could say the words, “I heart coonery,” BET cut TJ’s show back from five half-hour days a week to just one day per week (extending the show to one hour), simultaneously attempting to argue that the change means that they are giving TJ more time on the air instead of less. Sorry BET, but most of us know that five and a half hours per week is more than one. This is something we learned when we chose to pick up a math book instead of watching 106 & Park
So, BET allows for a show that significantly changes the direction of the network, the host does a great job, the show has solid ratings in spite of mediocre lead-ins and they kill it in just a month? The problem here is that the network should have at least given TJ three months on his original schedule to build an audience for the show instead of expecting him to overcome thirty years of misdirection in just a month. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that this show was actually set up for failure.
I respect BET President Debra Lee, but I have to be honest. Rather than assuming responsibility for taking the show off the air, the network heads will likely lay the blame into the hands of black people themselves. I can hear Debra saying, “See, we tried to offer you negroes something positive, but you refused to watch it.” Such a statement would be made without regard to the fact that most of the quality audience left BET a long time ago, and it’s going to take some time and money to get them back. But an exceedingly materialistic corporate model hell bent against the idea of delayed gratification is likely not going to make the kind of investment necessary to clean up a mess that began back when Michael Jackson was still a young sex symbol.
Sorry Debra, but you and I both know that you can’t blame black people for this one. You never gave this show a chance, you never gave it adequate marketing and you never gave TJ the support that your network would gladly give to a baby killing gangster like Lil Wayne. You can’t feed a child cookies and grease every day for 20 years and then expect him to lose weight with one day of exercise. Similarly, you can’t build a multi-billion dollar network on a perpetual dose of psychological poison and then expect your audience to suddenly become enlightened.
TJ Holmes is good for BET, and I hope that Debra Lee understands that. But if the lives of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and even Jesus show us, you are usually going to be crucified for trying to do the right thing. Anyone trying to save BET might just be wasting their time, for almost none of its leaders has the courage to push for something different. In order to make progress, you must be willing to embrace the struggle necessary in order to move forward. If you say you want something better, but aren’t fully prepared to make that investment, then your actions have told us everything we need to know.