It's 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening and hundreds of people have gathered outside Durham's Carolina Theatre to participate in Black Entertainment Television's (BET) first taping of 106 & Park, the highest-rated, regularly scheduled music series on television. The rain is not enough to dampen the spirits of the predominately teenage crowd, who have stood for nearly two hours in high heels, new hairdos, and expensive designer clothes--with and without umbrellas--for a chance to be a part of BET's public relations tool, dubbed the "Black Star Power Tour."
Since it began airing videos in 1980, BET--which was created as a venue for popular and obscure black artists to showcase their videos and air their music, and where viewers could learn about issues affecting the black community--has prided itself on developing and presenting programming for black audiences. The tour (which has already made stops in Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Detroit) is the network's way of developing an up-close-and-personal connection with its viewers, by allowing them to participate in live tapings of its most popular shows. For the Durham tour stop, episodes of 106 & Park, Comicview, Bobby Jones Gospel and BET Nightly News were taped and are scheduled to air November 18-24. Tickets were free and it was no surprise that they went quickly. And if the number of tickets released in Durham is any indication of interest and support for BET's programming, then count the Bull City as a loyal follower. However, not everyone is ready to jump on the BET bandwagon.
The Reverend Paul Scott of Durham, a self-proclaimed Black Nationalist and founder of the New Righteous Movement, an organization that teaches Afrikan Liberation Theology, is one of those who believes that BET is poisoning the minds of black people. "We are not talking about BET News or Bobby Jones Gospel, but we are talking about Cita's World and all the video programming," he says. Scott describes Cita's World--the video countdown show with animated host, "Cita"--as extremely dangerous, because it attracts young children with its cartoon-like host. Reverend Carl Kenney, former pastor of Orange Grove Baptist Church and columnist for The Herald-Sun, agrees. "These images [of women in provocative clothing] are doing a great disservice to our young women," he says. Kenney believes that BET (and networks like it) are responsible for using videos to disseminate negative messages to young women. "Young women emulate the dress they see in these videos and no one ever tells them that it is wrong," he says.
A look at a typical day of BET programming seems to support Scott and Kenney's position. On any particular Monday from 9 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. BET viewers are inundated with video shows, including BET Start, Videolink, 106 & Park, Cita's World, Hits from the Streets, and Rap City: Tha Bassment. Within this time frame there is a 30-minute break, from 11-11:30 a.m. Wake Forest parent Cynthia Dean, the mother of 9-year-old Gabrielle, acknowledges that some of BET's programming is negative, but she does not believe the network, as a whole, is a problem. Dean, who often watches the channel with her daughter, says she has no problem with Gabrielle watching BET or any of its programs.
"If inappropriate scenes come on during a video, Gabrielle will turn to me and say 'ugh,' and then me and Gabby discuss what we just saw," she says.
Durham native Nicole Carter, 27, and godbrother Marcus, 13, agree that BET is not the enemy. Carter, who attended the 106 & Park taping because she "wanted to be a part of all the fun," says she watches BET because she enjoys the network's programming. "People should stop criticizing BET and let them do what they want to do," she says. Marcus adds that he is not influenced by the negative images that are portrayed in the videos on shows like 106 & Park.
Kenney says though it may be partly true that crime is a result of music, this argument is overstated. "It could be said that boys are emulating Snoop Dogg and Tupac, but what I see and hear them say [young boys he talks to] doesn't suggest that," he says.
Scott disagrees. He believes that many of the problems that black Americans face today are a direct result of the images that are being spread through mass media, including BET and urban radio. "Our young people are caught up in a web of despair and you have to deal with the spider that created the web," says Scott. And according to Scott, untangling this web involves a revolution that he says hip hop is not ready for.
In an article titled "Hip Hop is Scared of a Revolution," Scott writes: "What makes the current condition of hip hop so painful is that with our glorious past, today, we are not even able to stop corporate America from filling the heads of black children with dreams of thuggism. Nor have we come up with an alternative that can compete with the hyped up, hip hop stories in magazines about the joys of genocide."
Recently, to the chagrin of many viewers, media-giant Viacom (who also own Cartoon Network, Blockbuster, UPN, TNN, Simon & Schuster, Nickelodeon & VH1) bought out BET network. When asked if BET's recent diversification of programming--due to the buyout--is adequate, Scott says no.
"BET is hiding behind the whole black thing," he says. "Viacom is a white, racist bigot in blackface and the messages that we are getting are the same messages that are put out by the Ku Klux Klan."
Though they disagree on several points, Scott and Kenney agree that BET has a responsibility to educate and entertain--a responsibility greater than that of MTV or VH1, by virtue of the network's name and target audience.
"This is our voice, but there is some bad that goes with that," says Kenney. "We need to be real about it and clean it up."
Kenney says that other networks like as MTV and VH1 are doing a better job of educating blacks on their culture than BET. "Part of being black is having a social consciousness," he says. "BET has to do more in this area to show this side of us. If they don't do it, I am afraid we will lose it."
Cleaning Up BET
Hip-hop historian Jocelyn Womack shares many of Kenney's views about the nation's leading 24-hour television network for African Americans. Like Kenney, Womack believes BET is a necessity because African Americans need a source of media that reflects issues related to them. She says she is satisfied with BET's news programming, but as a network, the station has not done enough to diversify its programming, or present original programs.
"Many of [BET's] newer programs are MTV shows painted black," she says. Because of the inherent and apparent value that the network has, Womack feels that it is important to keep BET, but thinks some programmatic changes need to be made, to bring the cable channel more in line with their responsibility as a network targeting African Americans (see sidebar "Cleaning Up Black TV").
"It's about balance," says Queen Latifah, during an interview following the Durham taping of 106 & Park. "Life is about quality music and we have to give the kids that. They eat up what we say; we have to show them that ...[there are] good stories in the hood." Latifah says she chooses to talk about positive stories in her music because although "there is nothing wrong with having a ... nice house or ice, [but] life is not just about that." Ultimately, Latifah believes that African Americans must change their mindset to look at the bigger picture and to go for a bigger piece of the pie. "It's about continuity, longevity and ownership. We need to teach these things to our kids."