Tuesday, December 04, 2007
From The Los Angeles Times…
BET shaky, even in its Sunday best
By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Tonight’s live finale of “Sunday Best,” Black Entertainment Television’s gospel-themed reality series, will most likely shower praise on one of two aspiring vocalists competing for the honor of “America’s next great gospel star.”
More significantly, the singing competition is poised to end BET’s year on a high note after several months of controversy.
A jubilant mashup of “American Idol” and the black church, “Sunday Best” is part of a strategy by BET President Debra L. Lee and President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin to transform the Viacom-owned network, a frequent target of critics who claim it has perpetuated negative black images since its launch in 1980. The series has scored some of the network’s best ratings this season, attracting almost a million viewers each week.
As BET enters the last stage of a three-year plan to broaden its appeal with original programming and scripted series, Hudlin maintains that “Sunday Best” and other new series such as “Baldwin Hills,” “Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is” and “American Gangster” vividly illustrate how BET has moved well beyond its menu of raunchy rap videos and footage of scantily clad dancers.
“It’s an unprecedented time at Black Entertainment Television,” Hudlin proclaimed to a gathering of TV reporters last July. The veteran producer and director, hired by the network in 2005 largely because of his Hollywood connections, pointed out that BET has been developing “the largest, most diverse aggregation of black programming in television history.”
But even though “Sunday Best” and many of its other series have connected with the network’s core audience, BET has sparked as much criticism as ever, shadowed by stumbles and questions surrounding its programming.
Although the in-your-face videos may be harder to find, leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby and the NAACP have complained that BET is still too reliant on negative African American stereotypes. They city the people-behaving-badly series “Hot Ghetto Mess”; a foul-mouthed animated video “Read a Book,” which liberally uses the N-word; and “Hell Date,” a “faux” reality show with the punch line that features a little person in a devil’s costume (“You’re on ‘Hell Date!’”).
“I was prepared to forgive the crude language and lack of creativity if there was a message encouraging viewers to read and otherwise conduct themselves responsibly,” said Jackson last summer of the “Read a Book” video in a statement released on his behalf by his Rainbow Coalition organization. Jackson’s statement went on to add that the video “takes us into the abyss.” A grass-roots coalition of church members has staged regular weekend marches each week outside the East Coast homes of Lee and Viacom Chief Executive Phillippe Dauman, protesting that BET does not reflect a broad spectrum of the black cultural experience.
Much of the network’s schedule is revamps of existing shows on other networks (Fox’s “American Idol,” the syndicated series “Blind Date” and MTV’s “The Hills”). And BET endured one of its most embarrassing chapters last summer when it attempted to rename “Hot Ghetto Mess” as “We Got to Do Better” to deflect controversy and then hung on to the original name in the broadcast versions of all the episodes.
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