After reading a recent article wondering why BET hasn’t had the same success its sister station VH1 has enjoyed as of late, I asked myself if people REALLY want BET to be ratchet, despite its efforts shake off the tarnish from years of questionable programming.

In the article, “If Black Reality TV Is A Winner for VH1, Why Is BET Still Losing?” Madame Noire writer Courtney Cleveland wonders why BET hasn’t been able to strike ratings gold with its reality TV lineup.

She writes:

Despite being owned by the same company, BET hasn’t been able to capture the success VH1 has seen in reality television. It seems like the network is scared to attempt anything groundbreaking. The history of criticism of BET’s portrayal of African-Americans is a long one.  Ever since Bob Johnson sold the channel to Viacom in 2003, BET can’t seem to get on the good side of its target audience. 

The channel saw moderate success with the series College Hill, the closest BET has come to getting their strategy for reality television right. Seasons three and four brought record ratings at the time, though they’re dwarfed in comparison to Love & Hip Hop’s numbers. We won’t even talk about Baldwin Hills and Harlem Heights,” the network’s shows chronicling the lives of the young and the attractive (and let’s not forget the boring). They don’t make a blip on the radar of Mona Scott-Young, the creator of the Love & Hip Hop franchise.

Cleveland concludes BET’s problem is simple: a lack of aesthetics and an audience who artificially holds the network to a higher standard.

Aesthetically, VH1’s shows look better. You can tell they are putting more money into production. More than that, VH1 isn’t afraid for their characters to look bad. Almost every show on VH1 depicting African Americans has been met with calls for boycotts. But, while the network is receiving petitions, they are simultaneously pulling record-breaking ratings. It’s a mixed message BET has never experienced.

BET has been called every name in the book while their viewership slides. So they have played it safe for the past few years. Making more family-friendly programming seems to have stifled the network’s creativity. You can see it in their scripted shows. Reed Between the Lines may have been modeled off of The Cosby Show, but it’s more reminiscent of Leave It to Beaver. The characters are so inoffensive, they’re not even entertaining. 

VH1 doesn’t have the burden of carrying the banner for representing positive images of Black America on television. The network is free to produce entertaining stories and a host of wacky characters without concerning itself with being politically correct. The death of the soap opera left an opening for cable networks to fill the void our “stories” used to occupy. Hate it or love it, VH1’s reality programming is tailor-made to be recapped over the water cooler and tut-tutted all over Twitter.

This assertion, that BET is bound by those who feel like it should “uplift the race,” is an interesting one.

Over the last year, I’ve written about BET’s attempts to reform it’s programming through its effort to add new sitcoms, scripted dramas, and showcase films by up and coming black directors like Ava DuVernay. And every single time I talk up their efforts someone chimes in about the Uncut years when BET was more concerned with booty shaking than providing positive depictions of black folks.

Despite their best efforts, BET’s image has definitely taken a hit for years of subpar and offensive programs. But to argue that they need to amp up the drama and follow VH1’s example of Basketball Wives buffoonery isn’t the answer either.

Moreover, the mere question of adding  “real life” drama (read: fights) to its lineup akin to VH1’s popular shows just to gain viewers is problematic.

As Cleveland points out, folks have no problem lumping BET into the ratchet matrix of reality depictions despite the network decidedly not being involved. But to insinuate that they lower their standards instead of raising them is a problem.

I commend BET for not getting involved in the Wives/jump-offs/side pieces/angry black women muck of reality TV and attempting to present scripted shows that provide a balance to not-so-real drama we see on other networks.

And while BET can certainly improve the writing on some of its shows, the answer isn’t to jump into the muddy waters of negative black female stereotypes, but rather continue to improve on what they’ve already started: (re)building a network that shows us in various lights, not just through the hot prism of a modern day minstrel show.

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  • Unfortunately BET being the first of its kind and held up as the standard for a black network it is positioned as the responsible channel. VH1 can indulge in all kinds of ratchet behavior and then turn out a damn good documentary and call themselves fair balanced and even. BET will be crucified and has been crucified for doing the same. I remember BET Nightly News followed by midnight love, a replay of 106 & Park and then BET Uncut. The seeming balance between ratchet and commentary was demonized even when BET had panel discussions on issues in the Black Ommunity. BET must walk the didactic editorial line that provides entertainment and conscientious observation and directed commentary all at once. BET can never be VH1 not even of they wanted to.

  • I think Ms. Danielle and I have misunderstanding on what drama entails. I agree, BET shouldn’t lower its standards to feature stereotypes and other “rachet” behavior in its original programming. I think BET can compete with VH1 – or anyone else’s reality programming – by showing the true struggles/issues/drama of the everyday stories of African-Americans without stereotyping them. But, they have to be willing to push themselves and may even their audience to do it. My full response is on Madame Noire. Thanks to Clutch for responding, we need to continue to discuss what we want to see on BET (and evaluate our criticism of the channel) in order for the channel to do its job correctly.

  • TJH

    This is a money game– People should not be fooled. Reality shows (called by their formal names in the corporate entertainment world, “unscripted television”) have a group of writers (pause and think about that irony). These groups of writers are assigned to certain projects. Many of the writers, directors and producers for one channel’s reality shows, work on other channels. There are a lot of issues at play. 1) Budget considerations 2) Time constraints 3) Programming space 4) Advertising.

    When you have a group of people doing 2 jobs their time has to be apportioned in some way. In the case of the people putting on these reality shows, that time is determined by how much revenue each show and each channel will bring in. The day of the week, time of the day, number of re-runs, and types of advertisers all determine how much money the show makes, which determines the production quality, which determines the overall quality, which determines what we see on TV. So it’s not about true head to head competition between reality tv on VH1 and reality tv on BET. A network executive has already decided when the show is going to be produced what you will get.

  • Nae

    I honestly think that BET doesn’t have to necessarily tap into the reality scene because there is enough of that on TV. Before BET tries to do that, BET needs to work on having a good network period. Because I am so tired of looking at the same ole, same ole re-runs. I mean seriously what’s up with that? The network needs to find their niche, if they chose to tap into that again then fine, but we are so much more than that. They should be innovators not duplicators. VH1 is good at what they do, so let them keep doing it.

    I think that the network needs to just focus on its’ new shows that they have coming this fall, and really focus on their target audience, better yet define it. I just think that BET should raise the bar, and be a trendsetter. Produce something that’s positive, fun, new, and on the cutting edge that people will love it.


  • felicia

    I have had enough, this is starting to get pathetic. First all they do is display these mix women. Then they want shows to damage our reputation even more. Bet needs to upgrade, it needs to change we need more positive movies and shows. How about a soap oprah africa has one. Put real black girls on bet show.