After reading a recent article wondering why BET hasn’t had the same success its sister station VH1 has enjoyed as of late, I asked myself if people REALLY want BET to be ratchet, despite its efforts shake off the tarnish from years of questionable programming.
In the article, “If Black Reality TV Is A Winner for VH1, Why Is BET Still Losing?” Madame Noire writer Courtney Cleveland wonders why BET hasn’t been able to strike ratings gold with its reality TV lineup.
Despite being owned by the same company, BET hasn’t been able to capture the success VH1 has seen in reality television. It seems like the network is scared to attempt anything groundbreaking. The history of criticism of BET’s portrayal of African-Americans is a long one. Ever since Bob Johnson sold the channel to Viacom in 2003, BET can’t seem to get on the good side of its target audience.
The channel saw moderate success with the series College Hill, the closest BET has come to getting their strategy for reality television right. Seasons three and four brought record ratings at the time, though they’re dwarfed in comparison to Love & Hip Hop’s numbers. We won’t even talk about Baldwin Hills and Harlem Heights,” the network’s shows chronicling the lives of the young and the attractive (and let’s not forget the boring). They don’t make a blip on the radar of Mona Scott-Young, the creator of the Love & Hip Hop franchise.
Cleveland concludes BET’s problem is simple: a lack of aesthetics and an audience who artificially holds the network to a higher standard.
Aesthetically, VH1’s shows look better. You can tell they are putting more money into production. More than that, VH1 isn’t afraid for their characters to look bad. Almost every show on VH1 depicting African Americans has been met with calls for boycotts. But, while the network is receiving petitions, they are simultaneously pulling record-breaking ratings. It’s a mixed message BET has never experienced.
BET has been called every name in the book while their viewership slides. So they have played it safe for the past few years. Making more family-friendly programming seems to have stifled the network’s creativity. You can see it in their scripted shows. Reed Between the Lines may have been modeled off of The Cosby Show, but it’s more reminiscent of Leave It to Beaver. The characters are so inoffensive, they’re not even entertaining.
VH1 doesn’t have the burden of carrying the banner for representing positive images of Black America on television. The network is free to produce entertaining stories and a host of wacky characters without concerning itself with being politically correct. The death of the soap opera left an opening for cable networks to fill the void our “stories” used to occupy. Hate it or love it, VH1’s reality programming is tailor-made to be recapped over the water cooler and tut-tutted all over Twitter.
This assertion, that BET is bound by those who feel like it should “uplift the race,” is an interesting one.
Over the last year, I’ve written about BET’s attempts to reform it’s programming through its effort to add new sitcoms, scripted dramas, and showcase films by up and coming black directors like Ava DuVernay. And every single time I talk up their efforts someone chimes in about the Uncut years when BET was more concerned with booty shaking than providing positive depictions of black folks.
Despite their best efforts, BET’s image has definitely taken a hit for years of subpar and offensive programs. But to argue that they need to amp up the drama and follow VH1’s example of Basketball Wives buffoonery isn’t the answer either.
Moreover, the mere question of adding “real life” drama (read: fights) to its lineup akin to VH1’s popular shows just to gain viewers is problematic.
As Cleveland points out, folks have no problem lumping BET into the ratchet matrix of reality depictions despite the network decidedly not being involved. But to insinuate that they lower their standards instead of raising them is a problem.
I commend BET for not getting involved in the Wives/jump-offs/side pieces/angry black women muck of reality TV and attempting to present scripted shows that provide a balance to not-so-real drama we see on other networks.
And while BET can certainly improve the writing on some of its shows, the answer isn’t to jump into the muddy waters of negative black female stereotypes, but rather continue to improve on what they’ve already started: (re)building a network that shows us in various lights, not just through the hot prism of a modern day minstrel show.