“Hot Ghetto Mess” just got messier. Executives at BET had hoped that Wednesday night’s premiere of the controversial series, inspired by the Hot Ghetto Mess website that highlights images of blacks in outrageous, often degrading situations and clothing, would defuse some of the uproar surrounding the show, which has been shadowed by reports of advertiser withdrawals and protests from bloggers who feared it would perpetuate negative African American images. The network was more than pleased with the viewer turnout. The series drew more than 800,000 viewers at 10:30 p.m. But instead of calming the storm of controversy, the debut added more fuel to the fire.
BET had announced earlier this week that the show’s original name, “Hot Ghetto Mess: We Got to Do Better,” would be chopped to “We Got to Do Better,” scrapping the hot-button title and putting more focus of the series’ intended mission of social commentary and satire. But that change was not reflected on the air. Though promos and on-air guides listed the series as “We Got to Do Better,” host Charlie Murphy greeted viewers with “Welcome to ‘Hot Ghetto Mess.’ ” He repeated that title several times during the half-hour show. In addition, the episode contained no disclaimers or announcements that the show was no longer formally called “Hot Ghetto Mess.”
The failure of BET to implement the promised title change puts a harsher spotlight on its difficulties with the series during a period when the network is trying to focus attention on a diverse and ambitious slate of programming designed to erase some of the channel’s historic stigma. The network has long been criticized for airing raunchy rap videos and scantily clad women. BET Entertainment President Reginald Hudlin has expressed frustration that the uproar over “Hot Ghetto Mess” was attracting more media attention than some of its new shows, such as the reality series “Baldwin Hills” and the religion-flavored “Meet the Faith.”
“Hot Ghetto Mess” will continue to be the show’s on-air title, the network said Thursday. The initial order of six episodes had been completed before the decision to change the name was made, and Murphy, a comedian who is on tour, was unavailable for re-shoots. “In terms of the title, we didn’t have time to make the necessary changes,” BET spokesperson Jeanine Liburd said. “But we did make adjustments in our marketing efforts and in our listings for the series.”
Liburd acknowledged that the first episode could have included a disclaimer informing viewers that the show’s title had formally been changed. The episode contained mostly slapstick and comic clips of blacks — and some white — engaged in untoward behavior. There were also several man-on-the-street interviews, with questions such as “Who’s richer, Jay-Z or Bill Gates?” and “How many blacks are there on the Supreme Court?”
Gina McCauley, creator of the What About Our Daughters blog that had protested the series before it aired, based on the website that inspired it, said she was not won over when she finally saw it: “I just cannot believe that BET would risk a $100-million slate of original programming to put on what was just a poorly put-together, unoriginal show.” She said that the clips on the premiere had been endlessly recycled on YouTube and other websites and that the man-on-the-street segments were a rip-off of the “Jaywalking” spots on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”