The Washington Post

Who’s to blame for sleeping on ‘Don’t Sleep’? Not the viewers.

BET announced earlier this week that T.J. Holmes’s late night show “Don’t Sleep!” would be “expanded” from 30 minutes four times a week to a one-hour show that airs once a week. The network and Holmes are couching the shift as a response to overwhelming viewer demand for a longer show segment. Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that CEO Debra Lee stated that the show’s ratings had been dwindling and viewers “don’t show up” for positive programming.

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and T.J. Holmes on the set of Holmes’s talk show “Don't Sleep!” (Scott Wintrow/SCOTT WINTROW/PICTUREGROUP)

To begin with, it was unrealistic and faulty logic to think that viewers would faithfully tune in to “Don’t Sleep!” four times a week from the onset. Over-saturation is rarely a good strategy for rolling out any new media product. It is often best to give consumers bite-sized doses until they begin to yearn for its taste on their own. Serving up the new late night show in moderation from its inception would have ensured that audiences didn’t too quickly take the former CNN anchor turned BET host for granted.

The threat of “too much of a good thing becoming a bad thing” particularly holds for BET’s efforts to push forth socially conscious material to an audience whose palate has largely been cultivated for junk.

Boyce Watkins, founder of Your Black World Coalition, used a similar analogy when challenging BET to acknowledge their role in creating a particular audience. “A disproportionate chunk of the BET audience might consist of people who either enjoy brain dead programming or only look to BET to give them brain dead programming,” Watkins wrote in Thy Black Man. He continues, “You can’t give your child candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner until he’s 10 years old, and then expect him to become a vegan.”

So, “Don’t Sleep!” not only suffered from over-saturation, but its four shows a week were also expected to draw an audience that — for the most part — wasn’t there to begin with.

As a journalist with experience working with corporate-run mainstream media outlets, I know firsthand how the success of black journalists is often sabotaged from the beginning due to the demographics of their audience. We’re often writing and speaking to people whose cultural worldview is nothing like our own. It is nearly impossible to garner a loyal following amongst an audience that can’t see themselves in you.

In the case of “Don’t Sleep!,” the black journalist-white audience divide is not there, so the hurdle that Holmes faced wasn’t as apparent. But let’s keep in mind that BET, through the years, has continuously eliminated its news-centered programming that drew an older and educated viewership. For decades, it has been pouring its resources into attracting an increasingly younger audience that’s heavily focused on mainstream hip-hop music and culture.

As Jon Caramanica points out in The New York Times, the annual BET Hip-Hop Awards show is BET’s “bread and butter” and “106 & Park” serves as the network’s “anchor program.”

The millions of young viewers who tune into video countdowns on “106 & Park” can’t be the ones BET is expecting to “show up” to watch a panel of black intellectuals debate about affirmative action or the fiscal cliff. The viewers that would find the latter appealing abandoned the network a long time, concluding that it was not interested in meeting their needs.

If BET is seriously committed to regaining progressive black audiences, it will have to invest in that endeavor at the risk of not seeing immediate returns and even taking some losses. A positive show sprinkled here and there is incomparable to the decades of harmful programming that the network has put forth. BET’s best efforts at establishing better ties to the black community will always be measured by long-term, sustainable investments.

The excuse that “we give the public what they ask for” is a profit-driven one that is void of social responsibility. The decisions that BET makes about “Don’t Sleep!” and other positive programming in the months and years ahead will say more about the network than the viewers that it often blames.

If the network truly seeks to give voice to the issues that most affect the African-American community, then it must be willing to pay a price for that. And paying a price for positive representations of our community is the least that BET should be willing to do for black America.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .

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