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BET changes for the best - Aisha Jefferson

A few weeks ago, I was happily driving to work when I heard some very disturbing news on the radio.

An obviously under-25 female called the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" to comment on changes that are expected to take place at BET.

Although I had just caught the tail-end of the conversation, I was hoping I did not hear the girl correctly.

Apparently, the bigwigs at the 25-year-old cable network have decided to can its nightly news show by summer's end.

"What!?!?!?" I thought to myself. Surely this could not be true.

About a day later, my younger sister, who also is a journalist, called to vent about BET's new changes. It was at this point that I accepted that the news I heard was true.

The problem with canceling "BET Nightly News" is that, like the female caller pointed out, the people who need the news the most will not be getting it. My concern lies with BET's young viewers.

It was just over two years ago (about a year after being sold to Viacom for $3 billion) that BET had canceled three of its public affairs programs, "BET Tonight with Ed Gordon," "Teen Summit" and "Lead Story." This left "BET Nightly News" as the BET-viewer's only portal to the world outside of music videos and entertainment-based news.

And, even though the 30-minute news show would be replaced with one-minute news briefs from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., I don't think the impact will be as effective. Call me old fashioned, but I think the new format will be, dare I say it, too MTV-ish.

Though people may argue and say MTV and BET share many of the same viewers (they also share the same owner - Viacom), I still like to hold on to the thought that BET could offer something a little bit unique from the fare of its contemporary.

Trust me, becoming a 24-hour, music video-only network specializing in iced-out entertainers and rump-shakers was not the original vision for BET. Its focus did not appear to be only on the 34 and under crowd.

BET was a concept that seemed somewhat unimaginable decades before its 1980 debut. It is the first network owned and operated by black Americans for black Americans. It's arrival was long overdue.

During the earlier days, BET appeared to be on its way to having quality programming. Aside from the previously mentioned programs, there also was "Video Soul," which primarily featured R&B music videos. And the host of "Video Soul," Donny Simpson, is a baby boomer!

I know a lot of the kids I grew up with enjoyed watching "Teen Summit," an hour-long teen forum group that aired Saturday mornings. I spent my high school and early college days watching "Teen Summit." Although a teeny bit cheesy at times, it was informative and dealt with very issues young people dealt with, including dating, male-female relationships and grades.

There also was Bev Smith's hourlong talk show, "Our Voices," and BET's version of "Entertainment Tonight," called "Screen Scene." And there was "Video LP" and its host Madeline Woods. "Rap City" was something you surely did not want to miss, especially for old-school Wednesdays.

Yep, those were the good old days.

With programming such as "Our Voices," "BET Tonight" and "Lead Story," my parents watched BET more than or just as much as I did during the 1980s and 1990s.

But that was a long time ago. Fast forward a decade, and you will probably find my parents watching anything but BET.

The question on people's minds is, with all of the changes taking place, what about the quality programming BET seemed to aspire to have when it first started?

I have not heard anything about changes regarding improving the content of the music videos. Most of the criticism BET receives is related to the quality and quantity of music videos it airs. Forget Black Entertainment Television. At the rate BET has been going for the past decade, perhaps they should rename itself BVT - Black Video Television - or BMT - Black Media Television, because that is about all you get.

BET has been and continues to be a very successful financial entity. I will not argue with that. But will this network ever get the opportunity to reach its full potential? Is it true that BET has not risen to anything more than a cash cow?

New kids on the block, TV One and the MBC Network, are working to fill the void regarding quality family programming geared toward black Americans. But, they have a long way to catch up to the popularity and name recognition BET possesses.

In the meantime, my suggestion to the bigwigs at BET or Viacom, or whomever has the final say in calling the shots, is to be inventive! If you feel that you may want to grab the younger age market, don't ax the only public affairs program you have. Make it better. Make it hipper. But don't cheat them by giving them sporadic 60-second glimpses of the world. Trust me, if you do, it'll only come back to haunt you.

Aisha I. Jefferson covers police and courts for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or via e-mail at ajefferson@henryherald.com .