BET's Strategy Combines Politics
By Monica M. Clark
Thursday, July 29, 2004
Theyre calling the Democratic Convention a show; but ironically, Black
Entertainment Television -- known for its music and comedy programs -- is searching
the hall for real news.
African-Americans make up 20% of the convention delegates this year. More blacks
have committee chairmanships: Ohio Congressman Stephanie Tubbs Jones is chair
of the platform committee, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is chair of the credentials
committee and New York state Rep. Gregory Meeks is chairing the rules committee.
BET has brought 25 journalists and technicians here to provide updates for its
nightly newscasts. BET News doesnt expect to replace the major networks
or all-news cable stations as the main source of convention news for its audience,
but it does see an opportunity to report on issues from what Washington Bureau
Chief Pamela Gentry calls the African-American perspective.
BET.com political analyst Joe Davidson explains what this means: We will
follow the activities of black delegates and politicians and various things that
they do, as well as address how public issues or decisions will affect black
For starters, BET released a poll of black voter opinions, in what it calls the
largest sampling ever done of registered African-American voters, in partnership
with CBS, its fellow Viacom corporate sibling. The poll showed that 79% of black
voters said they plan to vote for Kerry over Bush in November, compared with 49%
of all American voters.
Since blacks make up the most loyal base of the Democratic Party, other news media
may find their concerns a sideshow not worth addressing.
Jeffrey Johnson, or Cousin Jeff, vice president of the Hip Hop Action
Committee and frequent commentator on BETs Rap City, said black
media organizations such as BET provide a perspective on war, economy, education,
taxes and social issues that the mainstream news media lack. Its not
enough to cover just the BET awards. Johnson said. We need to air
stories that are newsworthy. We need to critically analyze ourselves.
CNN political analyst Carlos Watson, a rising black star at the all-news network,
said voter turnout and underemployment are issues affecting the black community
that should be given more attention.
Critics say that BET's convention updates and its poll may not be enough to offset
their disappointment with BETs normal fare, which they say emphasizes too
much sexually provocative entertainment at the expense of serious reporting on
critical issues. While the network is covering the convention daily in its one
nightly 11 p.m. half -hour newscast, BET has yet to cut into time devoted to its
entertainment programming for more extensive coverage. BET will also cover the
Republican Convention in New York next month.
Adrian Walker, a Boston Globe columnist who covers local issues and is an Afro-American,
is not impressed with BETs limited commitment to covering the convention.
He says BET could -- and should -- do more with news and public affairs. Its
much less than it should be, Walker said in an interview on Saturday. Theres
too much T&A on BET and not nearly enough that concerns the lives
Since founder Robert Johnson sold the station to Viacom in 2000, BET Tonight
with Ed Gordon, Lead Story and Teen Summit have
all been cancelled. As a result, BET Nightly News is the networks lone public
BETs effort to cover the convention, however small in comparison with other
television networks, also offers a chance for good corporate relations with African-American
politicians here. Yet BET missed an opportunity Tuesday to broadcast rising black
political star Barack Obamas riveting keynote address, on a night when the
big networks also declined to carry the podium speeches live. BET instead showed
only a two-to-three minute interview with the Illinois representative, who is
running for the U.S. Senate, in its regular newscast, according to Michael Lewellen,
vice president of corporate communications.
Davidson, the BET political analyst, hopes nevertheless that BET can have an impact
on educating black voters about their choices in the presidential election. He
said BET's poll, developed by BET Nightly News and BET.com, is one contribution
no one else has made. Davidson noted that the issues the poll revealed as most
pressing among African-American voters -- unemployment and the economy -- were
major topics in the speech Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry gave to
the National Urban League just a day after the poll was released. According to
Gentry, the poll results helped to shape BETs convention coverage.
African-American politicians and celebrities who attended Bostons Hip-Hop
Summit Monday as the convention opened outlined subjects they thought the news
media should cover more in order to serve the black community better. Their concerns
varied as widely as their personalities. For U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.,
the concerns are prison reform and mandatory minimal sentencing. For Detroit Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick, they are access to money for investment and business development,
health care and education. When Babs from P. Diddys reality show, Making
The Band 2, was asked what the media should cover more for black audiences,
she simply said, Everything.
In addition to its poll, BET is focusing on youth, a natural audience for a network
whose viewers typically range between the ages of 18 and 34.
According to Gentry, the news staff is honing in on young advocacy groups and
the hip-hop generation: the 18-to-35 African American youth who grew up with hip-hop
music. During the summit at Roxbury Community College, BET had several representatives
both on and off stage, including Free and Big Tigger from BETs 106
& Park and Rap City.
JeffreyJohnson, who spoke at the summit, emphasized the importance of youth involvement
in the election. He recounted an experience with a reporter who asked him why
someone from Rap City would cover the convention. We must tell them that
we, as young people, wont let people brutalize our communities. Johnson
responded. We wont let teachers undereducate us . . . We must say
to every media, We will lead our community into the future.
BET Nightly News and BET.com, the Tavis Smiley Show, blackamericaweb.com and the
Northstar Network (www.thenorthstarnetwork.com), a Web site whose mission is to
provide news relevant to black people, are all reporting on the convention. For
his part, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said he relies on a more old-fashioned
form of news: the traditional black newspaper. The Amsterdam News and Carib
News do a wonderful job covering political events, he said.
and Ellen Hume contributed to this story.