Black Entertainment Television made news yesterday when embattled Sen. Trent Lott sat down with the network's lead interviewer, Ed Gordon, to address Lott's recent controversial remarks about fellow Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond.
But just a few days earlier, BET made news of another kind. The Washington-based cable network announced it was eliminating most of its news division, including a nightly public-affairs program hosted by Gordon.
In light of that announcement, last night's journalistic coup struck some African Americans as bittersweet. It also renewed an old criticism of BET: that the network prefers a steady diet of cheap, lowbrow programming -- including suggestive music videos -- to programs that offer substantive news or information.
"Trent Lott knew he could connect with black folks by going on BET," said Mark Anthony Neal, a pop culture critic and an English professor at the State University of New York at Albany. "The irony is, when BET shuts down its news shows in a few months, where will Trent Lott go?"
BET said this month that it would drop "BET Tonight With Ed Gordon," as well as the Sunday night journalist roundtable "Lead Story" and the long-running "Teen Summit." The latter is an award-winning discussion program on which young people talk frankly about such issues as drugs, AIDS, sex and social pressure. It was originated by BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, the former wife of BET's chief executive, Bob Johnson.
The canceled shows are among the few public-affairs programs on national television produced exclusively by and for an African American audience.
"We couldn't find enough advertisers to support them and cover our costs," said Debra Lee, BET's president and chief operating officer. The news shows' ratings, she said, "just don't compare with the other shows we do." Lee estimated that the programs were losing between $3 million and $4 million annually.
She stressed that the programming decision was BET's alone and wasn't prompted by Viacom Inc., the New York-based media conglomerate that bought the network from Johnson two years ago. "This was a decision Bob Johnson and I made," Lee said.
The program cuts will be accompanied by about 40 layoffs, or about 12 percent of BET's staff. It will leave the network with one regular news show, "BET Nightly News," which BET produces in conjunction with another Viacom-owned division, CBS News. Lee said BET would also carry interviews, news specials and documentaries from time to time.
The cancellations were still a sore point for some of the anonymous posters on BET's Web site yesterday. Asked to comment on whether airing the Lott interview on the cable channel was a good idea, a few writers turned on BET itself.
"BET has some nerve trying to act as if all of a sudden they have a real interest in the Political Plight of Black America," wrote one respondent to BET.com. "Where was that interest when you decided to cut your news programming in favor of more stereotypical videos and sitcoms? Shame on you! Let a real news desk handle this important interview -- not an entertainment channel!"
Robert George, a New York Post columnist and semi-regular panelist on "Lead Story," called the elimination of the BET news program unfortunate. "It was a different kind of show than the kind CNN provides," said George, who appeared on BET last night to comment on the Lott interview. "It provides a valuable service. I'm sorry to see it go."
Added George: "As a free-market conservative, I realize that Viacom and BET's obligation is to the shareholders. But it seems to me that the news programs were relatively inexpensive to put together. It was a good, necessary service to its audience. I'm actually hoping that when they see the response to the interview and to the cancellations, they'll make some kind of renewed commitment to public affairs programming."
Lee says BET is still considering its options, but will likely replace the news programs with "entertainment-oriented shows."
In last night's interview with Gordon, Lott repeatedly apologized for remarks made at Thurmond's 100th birthday party in which Lott said "we wouldn't have had all these problems" if Thurmond's segregationist bid for the presidency had succeeded in 1948.
Lott disavowed some of his earlier Senate votes, such as his opposition in 1983 to a federal holiday recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. He also indicated that he did not intend to step down as the Senate's incoming majority leader.