Stop Fronting: Do You Really Want “Better” TV?

by Nia Broussard

Last week, BET president Debra Lee was surprisingly candid in explaining why her network has yet to make a 100% turnaround in terms of presenting what we typically call ‘positive’ content:

“Our audience always says they want this kind of programming, but they don’t show up.”


Lee doesn’t get a total pass in my book; just as I personally hold certain rappers responsible for deciding that the pursuit of riches is worth selling out their community and presenting images that make Black people look like the absolute scum of the earth. I know she’s gotta keep the lights on over at the network Aaron Mcgruder once called “Butts Every Time,” but I also think that the strides towards improving BET’s image have come a bit to slowly. And she sat at the helm of the channel for years before the makeover began … what was she thinking beforehand?

I do applaud her for her efforts to turn things around, however, and we should note the marked difference in 2012’s Black Entertainment Television from that we knew in 2002 (“Uncut,” anyone?) And I’m also sad to admit that she seems to have a point.

Don’t Sleep is pretty darn good; TJ Holmes isn’t quite Jon Stewart, but he’s off to a great start. Second Coming is a great documentary that seemed to have the right balance needed to entertain and enlighten audiences across age groups and educational levels. And while there could certainly be a conversation about the quality of the writing and acting on Reed Between the Lines and Let’s Stay Together … we are the same race of people who’ve made Tyler Perry a millionaire many times over. And we’ve padded the pockets of more than a few rappers and singers who cannot sing, nor rap.

What, we fancy now?

It’s not that we should settle for mediocrity just because it challenges the negative images that BET once featured most prominently. However, we’ve spent years grumbling and complaining about the lack of ‘positive’  television shows, but haven’t invested much time in supporting the controversial network’s efforts to create better ones.

We don’t owe BET or its parent company Viacom anything. We don’t have to watch Black shows just because they are Black. Yet, we certainly tune in to watch the Love and Hip-Hops and the Real Housewives by the droves. Do we really want better images of Black people on the tube, or do we just say that we do because we know that we should want better?

Thinking of Perry again for a second, look at the box office numbers for some of his non-Madea films (Alex Cross doesn’t count because he wasn’t at the helm AND no one with any good sense anywhere expected it to do anything other than flop). The mogul himself has threatened to retire the sassy grandma, but he brings her back out the costume shop every few years because she typically sells a lot more tickets than his Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds-type of films. And ain’t none of them particularly well written, so why is that okay when Madea’s around, but not when he’s trying to do something else?

Maybe we just like buffoonery. Not all of us, but a significant enough number to bring in the dollars for the images that op-eds and Twitter scholars rail against.

You ain’t gotta lie to kick it, fam. If you’re content with Nene’nem, then own that! But if you say you want something better, can you also say that you have tuned in when an option was presented your way?

Why do you think BET’s efforts at presenting higher quality programming have been less successful than their more ‘low-brow’ offerings?

  • African Mami

    What efforts?

    Girl, STOP irrr!!

    Efforts equate to the following:
    Taking full responsibility for bad programming
    Focus groups with target market
    Common Sense-they have none whatsoever! [why is Monique no longer on?!??!]
    Being solutions oriented, as opposed to scapegoating audience members for not watching new material

    Somebody else add on to the list, this is what came to mind immediately

  • Anon

    No, they need to stop front, BET, Viaco’n’ and Debra Lee. With all the expertise, talent and education at disposal here, it should not have taken them this long, they should have gotten it right a long time ago. How many years has it been? On the other hand, a network like OWN has been around less than 5 years and is already ‘getting there’, giving viewers better tv. I like your nerve with this guilt trip.

    But, I guess this is how things are suppose to go when a network and its executives started collaborating with COINTELPRO initiatives more than 20 years ago, for pay. That pay, that pay, that god-like ability, is so hard to let go of – I can image.

  • Val

    Yes, I would love to see some quality programming featuring Black people. I’d especially like to see scripted drama. I’m burned out on Black comedies.

    And I can’t for the life of me figure out how it is that Debra Lee still has a job at BET? I’d really love someone to explain that to me.

    Oh and I hear that TVOne has some good shows. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Unsung on youtube (I don’t have cable because I don’t want my money going to BET) and I really like it. So kudos to TVOne.

  • Lillian Mae

    I agree with Debra to a certain extent. She, like all other owners of a network, is trying to keep her business afloat…I’m sure they make programming decisions based on their audience viewership. If we continue to support trash tv (or entertaining tv, depending on how you view it), that’s what we’ll get.

    Personally, I’ve cut the cable cord and opted for Netflix, but even before I did, there was nothing on BET that appealed to me personally.

  • apple

    i think maybe people have given up on BET? i know that 10 years ago i would have been glad to see a show on i’m just over it.. i guess it would be nice to see a good show with black people on it.. it would be nice if they did something else other then shows that surround it being black as its premise or constantly about it, there is more to life than your color .. i want a good show where the actors are black, but with good story lines.. something not funny.. maybe a good drama(like Parenthood 2010-present its so good and thought provoking), or even a dark show(walking dead,vampire diaries)…even a soap opera(like the day soaps?)..but they never seem to do that. they just recycle that same 1990s black comedy thing…
    for now the only black show i really watch is Awkward Black Girl and this other show about being Black in the work force (also on youtube)

  • Sweetles

    The thing is, BET lost it’s credibility years ago.”Our audience always says they want this kind of programming, but they don’t show up.” I call bullshiz. Many of the people who would enjoy watching Don’t Sleep don’t and won’t tune into BET. Here is the bottom line. Many of us have given up on cable (myself included) and for many of the people who still have cable (and who care about quality programming for black people) would never turn the channel and watch BET

  • Cocochanel31

    I agree with the author. BET has definetly tried to turn some of it’s programming around. I don’t watch it that often just because perhaps out of the target audience, however, I cannot recall seeing anything detrimental on there at all now. They have even scaled back their video shows alot ( Remember Cita,Video Soul, Carribean Rhytems, Live in the DEn with Big Tigger) none of that type of video programming is still on now from what I can see, so what more do people want out of the network??? We did not support/like Reed In Between the Lines, I really don’t know what they can do at this point. I know they are trying out some more original programming….

    I’m guessing the target audience is young adults..but idk

  • Blue

    I only watch BET for Bobby Jones & an occasional good movie that I haven’t seen in awhile or a rerun of an old sitcom that no longer airs. Other than that, I flip to TV ONE quicker than I’d flip to BET. I mean Don’t Sleep is a step up but that’s about it. What happened to the days of Comic View, Teen Summit etc….TV One has more interesting stuff.

  • Starla

    How about say a travel show, cooking show, a science show, some kind of kiddie playhouse show for the kids, along with scripted dramas, documentaries, call-in show to some expert, a money management show, indie movies. It’s not like this is rocket science, just diversify the programming and make it useful and entertaining.

  • Kam

    How come TVOne isn’t complaining? The problem is BET’s horrible reputation. They’re gonna have to work a bit harder to repair it then just throwing a bunch of half-assed positive shows up. I really think they are taking their viewers for granted.

  • Britt

    I’ve noticed that VH1 is loved for the same reason BET is hated. What shows on BET right now do people really find degrading towards black people? They don’t have any reality shows displaying relationship drama, bottle throwing or fighting. TJ Holmes’ show “Don’t Sleep” is really good and I hope it’s getting good ratings. They have programs like “Sunday Best,” “Celebration of Gospel” and “Black Girls Rock!.” I love my black people, but some of us like to complain about anything especially when other black people are at the helm of it.

    When Oprah first started OWN Network, there were complaints that she didn’t show enough black people. I bet some of you that hate BET will watch “Love & Hip-Hop” and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and not think that VH1 or Bravo are setting black people back in time. (If you want to have conversation about “Reed Between the Lines” and “Let’s Stay Together,” we can DEFINITELY have a conversation about the writing and acting on “Single Ladies.”)

    When we’re given positive programming, it’s deemed boring and most likely doesn’t hold some people’s attention span because they’ve become so accustomed to the drama of reality TV. If you want positive programming, show up by watching it and don’t just tweet about it to show that you’re some “pseudo intellectual.”

  • omfg

    i only watch a couple of shows on hulu, and that’s a recent thing. and, i don’t watch the news.

    that’s what i think of television.

    i say this as someone who used to work in the media.

    but the old saying is true: if it bleeds it leads.

  • ACM

    Debra Lee’s postion on this is interesting. Based upon what they did with ‘THE GAME’, BET has lost a lot of their core audience. People tuned in to BET in droves to watch the return of that program ( around 7 millon) but when they decided to go in a different direction and killed what was positive entertainment. I disagree with her view point, I think we will ‘watch’ but listen to your audience and give us what we are asking for. There are tons of shows on Youtube that they could possibly bring to the network. There is one I believe called ‘Milk and Honey’ that is backed by Idris Elba. Totally worth watching! You make a mark by being different, not by repeating what’s already out there (hence the death of HIp-Hop). Kudos to TV ONE…black entertainment television that’s getting it right. Perhaps Debra and Kathy should meet for coffee……

  • Cococohanel31

    So true Brit!! BET has definetly changed over the years! I cannot think of one degrading show on their now..perhaps the naysayers can help me out! I’m not saying it is the best network, however, it is not doing any worse damage to our image than Vh1!!!!

  • Pseudonym

    Q: “Why do you think BET’s efforts at presenting higher quality programming have been less successful than their more ‘low-brow’ offerings?”

    A: Because people who watch higher quality programming now refuse to watch BET.

  • paul

    “Lee doesn’t get a total pass in my book; just as I personally hold certain rappers responsible for deciding that the pursuit of riches is worth selling out their community and presenting images that make Black people look like the absolute scum of the earth.”.


    seems to me that all mainstream (corporate) black media and entertainment output is pretty low class and one dimensional. The same criticisms that are leveled at rap can be applied to the so called black journalism community. I’ve seen beef kick off between so called writers who write for certain online publications (don’t make me pull it up) over the hugely important and urgent topic of the chick-fil-a, gay controversy.

    That’s the kind of petty and irrelevant foolishness that passes for journalism in the “black press”. They don’t send anybody out into the field to report on important events as they unfold on the ground, they don’t explain inner workings of the system, they don’t go after public officials or other representatives of the powers that be, and put em in the hot seat – they simply cheer lead for Obama and his wife.

    Indeed “black media” are no less purveyors of ractchetness and mind wiping dross than any other branch of popular culture. .

    Take a look in the mirror before you point fingers.

    On the old “we give the public want it wants” defense.

    I call bulls*hit.

    They offer the public a choice between two kinds of sh*t -

    boring sh*t and ratchet sh*t. Well guess which gets picked?

    If we had a media and entertainment industry that adopted some of the values I allude to above namely; to inform and educate the public, to investigate the powerful and to provide QUALITY entertainment, as opposed to “POSITIVITY” which translated for black audiences = patronising froth -

    then you could blame the public’s lack of good taste.

    But we don’t have that, we have pimps and hustlers selling filth and stupidity as news and entertainment.

    carry on though . . . .

  • jamesfrmphilly

    yes, i want good quality TV. BET needs new leadership and a positive direction.
    show me something good.

  • WellWellWell

    Do most of “us” want quality programming? I’m going to go with a big fat “no”, ratings speaks for itself.

  • JN

    I think what BET needs is just some serious re-branding. Apple re-branded itself, so did Bell Atlantic/AT&T. It can be done.

  • Please Excuse Me

    Thank you Starla, for stating that obvious. Just like you said it isn’t rocket science.

  • chanela17

    i was JUST about to come in here and say what you just said (but you said it better)

    hell naw black people don’t want better tv. they’re the main ones watching ghetto ass set-us-back-to-slavery reality shows. the biggest reality shows on television are the ones with black women acting stereotypically and childish as hell.

    as soon s people come out with a good positive show then it’s considered boring and you get nothing but *crickets*…introduce fighting and weave snatching and it’s an instant #1 hit.

    i am soo done with black women complaining about negative representation!

    damn hypocrites

  • Anon

    Throwing guilt trips, trying to apply reverse psychology, is definitely a sign that they take their viewers for granted.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    would you like a job running BET?

  • Dash Williams

    BET’s attempts at positive scripted television hasn’t been compelling. In 2012 “Reed Between The Lines” used a pony joke. The mistake that BET has made so far with their forays into “positive” scripted TV is that they have played it too safe. It also seems that they either haven’t been able to attract talented writers, or the talent they have has not been given the freedom to actually make anything good.

    Personally I don’t hold BET to a higher standard. I always laughed off the calls to boycott, mostly because I didn’t grow up with cable and thus didn’t develop an attachment to BET.

    It would be good to see BET give talented people like Ava DuVernay and tell them to make the show that they have always dreamed of making.

  • Dash Williams

    I never considered Pre-BET The Game to be “positive” programming. It was a solidly produced show.

  • Shelly

    @paul…YASSSSS! BET can’t just give us crap because it’s supposed to be positive. I still watch the Cosby Show in 2012. That show was not only positive, but well-written, along with great actors. I certainly will not support something just because I should be glad there’s no booty-shakin in it. We deserve more than that. I actually have not seen any of these supposedly ‘positive’ shows that BET now airs, but that’s because, as someone said earlier, people who seek good-quality entertainment would not dare turn their dials to BET.

  • Shelly

    cont. and i use the Cosby Show as an example because that show was wildly popular, and judging from the fact that it still airs reruns, people still watch it.

  • Deena

    BET seems to take two steps forward and one step back. I was so happy to see shows like Reed Between the Lines and Sunday Best and I thought they were finally turning a corner. Then they hit us with The Amateur Millionaires Club and I was just like- WHAT? I’ve seen it twice and don’t have a single positive thing to say about it. All I saw were lots of arguments and acting out and I don’t have a single clue who the women are on this show, or how they got their money because the show isn’t even put together well enough to tell the viewer this basic information. I haven’t gotten any insight into the lives of these women apart from that they argue a lot. Is that all black women have to offer? Does BET think thats all we’re worth? Its a TOTAL SHAMBLES and I can’t believe the network is back THERE again.

  • Ravi

    I’m fairly sure that the group that hates BET isn’t exact same group of people that love VH1. I hate both stations for the exact same reasons — poorly created scripted shows, coontastic reality television, and videos that wholesale in the comoditization of black women’s bodies. I have never been a fan of VH1 and haven’t watched BET since the 90s. Those of us that are complaining are trying to battle what we perceive as something that perpetuates negative imagery and conceptions of blackness. If you don’t share the same view of BET’s offerings, then do you. But I fail to see why we should cease our criticism based on your inability to see outside your own perspective.

  • Natsai

    Sometimes I worry if I am a pesudo intellectual, there I admit that. Because I have dogged BET for years but caught myself watching shows that I condemn. BET is just so easy to dog but recently I’ve begun to change my mind but my friends aren’t trying to hear me.

    Here’s my issue with BET. Just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it is entertaining. NO one watched the Cosby show just because they wanted to see a black family on TV, they had to be entertaining. Now with Reed Between the Lines was a slap in the face, it was like BET wasn’t listening. The whole formula of the show was painfully outdated. A show revolving around a nuclear family in 2012? Really? And everything is just peachy? It was like they remade Leave it to Beaver! BET is a lazy network which is a shame because there IS room for improvement.

    In terms of awards shows like Black Girls Rock, BET Honors, and hosting a three night long event on Ava Duvernay’s films which I guarantee no other network would have done, I still have hope for them. I love BET on Sundays! They play a bunch of independent plays and movies that I wouldn’t have known had I not tuned in. But why reserve that for just Sunday afternoons? Why reserve TJ Holmes for just one half hour A WEEK after everyone’s bedtime? That is a good show that will fail at that rate if it isn’t aired daily at TEN PM.

    My issue is BET should have BEEN reinventing itself like other stations have – MTV, VH1, Bravo, dammit even Cartoon Network! BET takes too damn long to shed its dead skin compared to other networks and that’s why it will never be taken seriously. That, and there are talented writers who will do any scripted series they have justice. Reed Between the Lines STUNK. It is 2012 the nuclear family is play okay. It is all about the blended family and/or entire family (aunts,uncles,grandparents, 2nd cousins). When you don’t take risks you fail point blank period and BET is failing. They need to choose and audience and stick to it.

    I still have faith in BET but just because I enjoy the occasional dose of ratchet doesn’t mean I shun positive shows, I watch those too. Black ppl don’t just watch ONE thing. I personally watch it all. From BBW to Real Housewives of ATL to Parenthood to Dexter. I just enjoy entertainment and BET does not do it for me. But they have so much potential still! If any other network had the stigma of BET that network would have folded YEARS ago, it’s a shame the ppl at BET don’t realize the blessing that is their viewers and really listen to them and not blame us for their lackluster ratings. Debra Lee take your millions buy a seat and sit. Stay there.

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