By Andrew Wallenstein
Mounting backlash against an upcoming BET series accused of trafficking in racial stereotypes has prompted at least two advertisers to pull out of the premiere episode on the Viacom Inc.-owned channel. Sources said Monday that such companies as State Farm Insurance Cos. and the Home Depot requested that their advertisements be yanked from the new comedy series “Hot Ghetto Mess” as well as from a Web page on BET.com touting the program.
BET declined to confirm specific advertisers defecting from the program but released the following statement: “A few of our clients have asked to move to other programming dayparts, and we simply accommodated their request.” The corporate retreat appeared to be in response to a growing chorus of critics who have been calling for an advertiser boycott of the series, which is scheduled to premiere at 10:30 p.m. July 25. (A copy of the pilot could not be obtained before press time.)
“Mess” is a compilation of viewer-submitted home videos and BET-produced man-on-the-street segments that exhibit blacks in unflattering situations that typically illustrate the excesses of so-called hip-hop culture. Also drawing some fire is “Mess’ ” 10 p.m. lead-in, the new hidden-camera series “S.O.B. (Socially Offensive Behavior),” as well as the logo for “Mess,” which appears to be an animated blackface character depicted with a red slash through the image. All six episodes of “Mess” are hosted by Charlie Murphy, a comedian best known from another program that tackled racially charged humor, the hit Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show.”
Ever since word of the series’ development spread in January, “Mess” has been a lightning rod for debate online largely because of the Web site on which the series is based, hotghettomess.com. The 3-year-old site, which also has spawned a DVD documentary, features hundreds of photographs of mostly black men and women with hairstyles and clothing associated with inner-city fashion. The network and Jam Donaldson, creator of the Web site and an executive producer of the series, maintain that the images are presented in a context meant to spur black America to question its community standards. But others contend that “Mess” is only perpetuating the stereotypes it seeks to curb.
“Maybe after Don Imus no one seems to have a problem with this kind of thing anymore,” said Latrice Janine, a 25-year-old student in Chicago who has been circulating an online petition that includes more than 2,000 signatures. “I still do. I may not stop Viacom from doing this on television, but it’s an effort to let them know the days of sitting quietly are gone.”
Complicating the controversy is the involvement of BET, which has attempted to distance itself in recent years from a past checkered by programming that has invoked scorn from countless black luminaries. But BET president of entertainment Reginald Hudlin believes “Mess” is designed to be thought-provoking for its target audience. “Is my goal to discuss these issues in a format and context that makes people who don’t watch the channel comfortable or do it in a way that engages the 18- to 34-year-old viewer and makes them really think about these things?” Hudlin asked.
Asked whether the series was screened for BET’s parent company, Viacom, Hudlin said: “BET is very autonomous. We don’t run ideas past Viacom. It’s me having a conversation with my boss, (BET chairman and CEO) Debra Lee.” But it is Viacom, BET and even Lee that have been savaged in debates raging on blogs, podcasts and even the Web site’s own forums. Leading the charge is What About Our Daughters, a little-known blog and audio podcast addressing depictions of black women in popular culture. In recent weeks, the site targeted advertisers that appeared on a BET.com Web page advertising “Mess”, including AT&T Corp., DaimlerChrysler and Target. Two advertisers, State Farm and Home Depot, released statements acknowledging that they withdrew both TV and online spots as a result of the boycott threat.
“We have reviewed the content of this program, which we just heard about, and we will not be airing any State Farm advertising during this program on BET,” a State Farm spokesman wrote. Hudlin took over programming responsibilities at the network two years ago, ramping up the network’s broadest slate of original series, including five new entries this month alone. But “Mess” might be suffering from the lingering distrust the network has long engendered among its core constituents; BET has been scolded throughout its 27-year existence for failing to adequately serve its viewership, especially overdelivering on racy hip-hop music videos.
Hudlin cited one of his first programming efforts, last year’s unscripted series “American Gangster,” as an example of the perception problems BET still faces. Detractors dismissed the series as a glorification of ghetto life before the series ever aired. But “Gangster” went on to win over many critics with its unsparing account of the toll the notorious criminals depicted in the series took on their communities. Asked if the issues raised by “Mess” would have been better treated within the context of one of BET’s news programs, Hudlin countered that doing so in a traditional news format would not best serve young viewers.
“There is a generation of people who don’t know how to talk to their kids in a way that doesn’t turn them off,” Hudlin said. “Now they’re complaining because we want to successfully engage them. Instead of complaining, they should take notes.” The 2001 acquisition of BET by Viacom has always been a source of concern for the network’s critics, citing the absence of black leadership at the highest ranks of the conglomerate. Those concerns were only heightened when the network’s founder, Robert Johnson, retired at the end of 2005, handing over the reins to his second-in-command, Lee.
The WAOD blog went so far as to crop a photo of Lee so that her face appeared on a image of Marie Antoinette, accompanied by text reading: “Ze common black folk are upset about ‘Hot Ghetto Mess.’ Let them eat cake!”
WAOD also likened “Mess” to other current series that have been taken to task for degrading blacks on another Viacom-owned network: “This is all a desperate attempt to catch up with their network cousin, VH1, home of ‘Flavor of Love,’ ‘I Love New York’ and ‘Charm School.’ Faced with the frightening possibility that the top-rated shows for blacks were all on another network, BET has attempted to one-up VH1 by racing farther and faster to the bottom.”
Even on the forums of HotGhettoMess.com, the series has been blasted. “Are you all really so naive?” one post asked. “This site is a form of entertainment, another blog with freak-show pictures, for us as blacks to laugh and e-mail to our friends while the whites pop in to tsk some more and ensure we remain stupid and uneducated.”
The unlikely figure at the center of this storm is Donaldson, a black 34-year-old lawyer who started the Web site on a whim after getting one too many e-mails from friends with the kinds of photos that now appear on the site. “As I got more and more of them, I thought I could make a statement to say, ‘Come on, y’all, we got to do better,’ ” she said.
“We got to do better” has emerged as the motto for the Web site, which Donaldson said attracts 10,000 unique visitors per day and has 40,000 registered members. The site received a burst of publicity last year when Donaldson appeared on the syndicated court series “Judge Judy” after she was sued for emotional distress by an individual claiming that he was depicted on the site without his authorization. Donaldson was not held liable.
But the “Mess” Web site also has drawn some negative attention: Donaldson said people have accused the Ku Klux Klan of operating the site, and images from the site have reappeared on white-supremacist Web sites. When BET approached Donaldson about adapting “Mess” as a TV series last year, she said it took several meetings before she felt comfortable enough to sign on. “I had a lot of trepidation about it,” she said. “Because it’s a concept that can go terribly, terribly wrong and be a disaster, and I would be vilified by the black community. It needed to be finessed and done right.”
While it is the site’s photo gallery that has drawn attention, there is plenty of other content on the site explaining its raison d’etrecq is not to ridicule black people, including an essay on the subject, as well as more dignified photographic examples labeled “not ghetto mess.” Donaldson and BET execs labored to bring the same sense of context to the site, including a commentary delivered by Murphy at the close of each episode similar in tone to the host’s harangue concluding “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Some of her fears were realized early on when Donaldson objected to promotional language the network issued in January seeking footage for the series. “It never said, ‘We got to do better,’ ” she said. “It made it look like ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ with black people.”
But Donaldson said the rest of the production process has gone relatively smoothly, with only minor creative disagreements that involved her getting to know the standards and practices of basic cable. For the record, she has no issues with the logo. “It’s hardcore and in your face,” she said. “You can’t mince words with that logo.”
In an industry where cultivating controversy is often synonymous with grass-roots marketing, Donaldson believes “Mess” has a built-in advantage in the crowded cable marketplace. “If it happens to be controversial, that’s fine,” she said. “If it makes it more marketable, that’s fine, too. ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was controversial, too, but (Michael Moore’s) message got out there.” Donaldson believes the ire directed at her site comes from people who not only misunderstand her motives but object to her very willingness to speak out.
“It’s long-standing among African-Americans that we don’t criticize each other in public, you don’t air the laundry,” Donaldson said. “But I don’t buy into it.”