Huey: I used to be a firm believer in the economic philosophy of black nationalism.
Jazmine: What's that?
Huey: That's the belief that black people have a responsibility to support all black businesses, because that creates a strong black economic base. . . . Those powerful black business people would then act in the best interests of black America.
Jazmine: You don't believe in that anymore?
Huey: Let's just say BET shot a few holes in that theory.
--From "The Boondocks," a comic strip by Aaron McGruder
Bob Johnson is getting agitated. His voice, usually as smooth and regulated as one of his veejays, is straining, the anger slipping through.
"There's a group of disaffected black people out there who feel BET has to be everything they want it to be," he huffs. "They're frustrated that BET won't program to their personal desires. They're personally frustrated BET isn't in their own image. They just don't understand."
It's almost 20 years since Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television, the cable network that has made him the world's richest and most powerful African American media baron. But lately, Johnson finds himself and his creation besieged.
At a time when the NAACP has been challenging the major networks for inadequate black representation, some African Americans are expressing disenchantment with BET. They gripe that BET's schedule is rife with lowbrow and shopworn programs, that the network offers little in the way of uplift or enlightenment--indeed, that it often traffics in the very stereotypes blacks have complained about on other networks. In addition, labor unions complain that Johnson exploits both his performers and his employees.
Ever since it went on the air, BET has been more than just another location on the 50-channel dial to African Americans. It's been both a curse and a blessing that the network, headquartered in a gleaming office tower in Northeast Washington, is still the only major one on the air devoted to blacks.
It's a blessing because it has enriched Johnson, its majority owner, and spawned a $200 million-a-year empire of books, magazines, restaurants and, soon, radio stations. But as Johnson himself acknowledges, BET's singular status makes it a juicy target. "Because we're the only game in town," he sighs, "we attract all this criticism."
Earlier this fall, Johnson picked up his copy of Variety to find an "open letter" addressed to him and the network's holding company, BET Holdings Inc.
The advertisement, signed by Richard Pryor, Jay Leno and 120 other comics, chided Johnson for his refusal to offer union wages to performers on "ComicView," the raunchy, five-nights-a-week centerpiece of BET's prime-time schedule. "Unfortunately," the ad read, "the show's success comes at the expense of its biggest asset--the comedians themselves."
"ComicView" pays its performers $150 per appearance. It doesn't pay fees for reruns, known as residuals, even though it has replayed some shows for years. Comics who appear on the program even have to pay their way to Atlanta, where the show is taped.
BET moved it there last summer to avoid a run-in with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the performers union. Or so says AFTRA, which points out that Georgia is a "right-to-work" state where organized labor has less bargaining clout. BET says it went south to find fresh talent.
In either case, this makes "ComicView" one of the few nonunion shows on national television. Under a contract with AFTRA, HBO pays performers a minimum of $500, plus expenses and residuals. Broadcast programs like "The Tonight Show" pay at least $700, plus the extras.
"BET's attitude is like the fruit and vegetable companies in the Depression that said '[Expletive] anyone who won't work for 10 cents a day,' " says Tommy Davidson, who starred on the old Fox series "In Living Color" and is one of the comics who signed the AFTRA ad. "What makes it more socially irresponsible is that it's coming from a black corporation, from people who've probably experienced this type of exploitation themselves."
Says Leno: "It shouldn't make any difference what color you are, it just seems unfair. . . . If this was a white network doing this to black performers you'd see huge outrage."
The skirmish with AFTRA opened a new front in an older, larger battle; labor complaints have a long history at BET. Johnson has successfully rebuffed efforts to organize the company's work force of nearly 500 for years. At one point during an organizing drive in 1996, BET threatened to fire or cut the hours of 14 engineers who supported the union effort. That drew a reprimand from the National Labor Relations Board, which BET appealed.
Today, three years later, the anger toward BET among labor leaders lingers. Johnson "told his workers that if they wanted the same salaries as their white counterparts at other stations they ought to go work for a [white-owned] station," says Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO.
"He plays this black issue," Williams continues. "You are obligated, according to him, to support BET if you are African American because here is a brother who has taken on the giants of the industry who are white men and beaten them at their own game. But he uses this as both a sword and a shield. When he goes after the white establishment, it's a sword. It's a shield when he wants to exploit his own people."
Such comments, naturally, infuriate Johnson. It's business, he says: "There's no there there. AFTRA is trying to organize BET. We will not be organized."
In return, he accuses the union of racial bias. "I've never heard of them challenging the networks' hiring practices," he says. "I don't see them taking part in the boycott" --the NAACP's threatened boycott of network programs--"I don't see them writing open letters to the networks about their lack of black representation. Why do they pick on BET? Why not ABC or NBC or Fox?"
AFTRA has gone after other networks, most recently Comedy Central and HBO, which signed deals, says AFTRA organizing director Paul Worthman. He points out that BET signed a labor agreement for one of its new shows, "Live From L.A.," when it recognized that it couldn't sidestep the union in its own back yard. As for racial motivation, Worthman laughs. "This is about green," he says, "not black or white."
Still, Johnson casts BET as a benefactor, not a villain. "We're giving opportunities to African Americans," he says. "The union isn't. What good is it to say Jay Leno pays scale to comics on his show when black comics aren't getting on his show?"
Johnson's supporters see it that way, too. "BET has more people of color in front of and behind the camera than exist in all of Hollywood," says Tim Reid, the actor-director whose 1996 movie, "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored," was partly bankrolled by Johnson. "This is very, very tragic. When you think that you could fit all the black people who have power in Hollywood into a car and still have room for a picnic basket, and we're focusing on BET? Please!"
It's not just organized labor that has a beef with BET, however. Publicity about the labor dispute stirred up some long-simmering resentments among African Americans about BET's programming.
McGruder, whose newspaper cartoon is carried in The Post and about 200 other newspapers, has been a leading BET-basher. In a strip a month ago, for instance, McGruder, an African American artist, attacked BET's Sunday programming:
Huey: Hello? Is this the cable company? There seems to be a problem with my cable. I'm watching Black Entertainment Television, but I don't see anyone black and it's not entertaining.
Cable company operator: OK, sir, we get this complaint all the time. Let me explain the problem. . . . Presumably in an effort to not decrease the profit margin by actually investing in original programming, BET mostly plays infomercials and televangelists on Sunday . . .
The criticism is especially pointed because McGruder grew up watching BET, and at 25, he still fits the profile of BET's target viewer. "What's frustrating is BET's potential," he says. "We all see enormous potential that is being squandered every day. . . . When you're in a position to change people's lives through positive representations, and you choose not to because you've taken the lazy way out with cheap shows that pander to sex and violence and money, it's just inexcusable."
McGruder laments BET's heavy rotation of hip-hop videos that "celebrate greed and avarice" and portray young black men as thugs and sexual conquerors. He dislikes the repeats of dusty network sitcoms like "Amen," and the Sunday lineup. "You have a network that reaches 55 million homes," he says, "and you're beaming in infomercials about blenders and exercise machines."
Criticism flows from other quarters, too. In the Electronic Urban Report, an online publication, a mini-debate about BET has been raging for weeks:
"When you think about it, BET has gotten away with some downright sad programming in recent years," wrote Adrienne Leonard, a 20-year-old college student from Columbus, Ga., in a fairly typical critique. ". . . BET definitely has the potential to become a first-rate television network. But right now, BET's programming seems to be little more than someone's hobby."
By Johnson's own accounting, BET plays music videos, supplied by record companies, about 60 percent of the time. Some of the videos for hip-hop artists are indeed suggestive--Dr. Dre's latest features a posse of grinding beauties--although perhaps no more so than the average heavy-metal video that plays on MTV.
The rest of the schedule is composed of "ComicView" and the variety show "Live From L.A.," the teen chat program "Teen Summit," news-talk shows "BET Tonight" and "Lead Story," along with another talk show hosted by celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran. BET also recently branched into limited drama production, with a series of made-for-TV movies based on the Arabesque line of romance novels (a publishing brand owned by BET), a move designed to lure more female viewers.
Leonard notes what's missing: a children's program, an original sitcom, an in-depth news program targeting black issues (BET recently canceled a weekly newscast). She says she'd also like to see a late-night show that "didn't include some ignorant comic yelling, 'Biiiitch, please.' "
"The point is," Leonard says in an interview, "BET has the resources to do better." Johnson "keeps giving everyone this song and dance about how he's the only one who cares about black people. But why isn't the NAACP going after BET?"
The NAACP declined to make an official statement, but Julian Bond, its chairman, said he is personally offended by the videos carried by BET, particularly "the language and half-naked women. . . . You have to remember that broadcasters have a responsibility to serve the public rather than merely cater to it. I'm not sure if MTV or BET or the others out there are serving or simply pandering."
Johnson says viewers like Leonard don't understand the economics of programming decisions. Producing a sitcom, he says, costs $950,000 per episode, or $18 million for a full season's worth. That's a huge and risky investment for several reasons.
Johnson points out that while BET is available in 55 million households nationwide, it's popular mostly among a much smaller audience--some 6 million black households. That audience isn't big enough to allow BET to charge the advertising rates that would bring in the money to produce a sitcom, he says.
What's more, Johnson doesn't think BET could offset its investment by selling reruns of such a program to independent stations, as the networks now do. Thus, even for a company that takes in $200 million a year, Johnson thinks the risks outweigh the rewards.
That hasn't stopped other networks. Telemundo and Univision, the Spanish-language networks that reach audiences roughly the same size as BET's, create and air their own sitcoms, dramas, news, children's and sports programs (both Spanish-language networks are able to resell their shows to stations south of the border). "Niche" cable networks such as Lifetime, which targets adult women, have also gotten into series production.
BET has always been about--and will remain--a network designed to showcase "the talents of African American entertainers," Johnson says. "We will always be anchored in music videos. Why would we run from that?"
To those who say it's not enough, he replies they just don't understand the business.
To those who say the videos aren't good enough, Johnson hedges.
"I think some of them are fine, some not. But this network isn't programmed for me. I'm a 53-year-old guy who went to Princeton. I'm the last guy you want to make that call. I rely on people who are more in touch with the streets, with young people. . . . People will decry things for the masses because they've decided it's not something the masses should have. It happens a lot in the black community."
He pauses. He's been on the defensive for 45 minutes, batting back flak from an interviewer. Does it get to him? he's asked. Do the attacks on BET bother him personally?
"I know what I've accomplished," he responds. "I know that Bill Gates will take my phone calls. I know that John Malone"--the cable mogul--"will do business with me. . . . I'm not bothered by it."
In January the network will celebrate its 20th year on the air. Bob Johnson says his creation is still evolving, but it won't be radically changed any time soon. Which may make his critics ask: When will BET finally grow up?