I want BET to be a radiant hub for Black culture again
BET not only displayed our culture, but they also helped move it.
by Khaaliq Crowder
Growing up, my pop culture interests were always unapologetically aligned with everything Black. From owning CDs by late 90s/early 2000s artists such as Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and Janet Jackson, to watching marathons of sitcoms like Moesha and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to being introduced to the classic group The Jackson 5 via their 1992 TV movie. One of the main channels to go to for everything related to Black culture as a young person growing up in the 2000s was none other than Black Entertainment Television, simply known as BET.
During the Aughts, BET not only displayed our culture, but they also helped move it. One of the biggest shows that struck a chord with my classmates and I was the music video countdown juggernaut 106 & Park because it was indeed the platform and outlet for our voice and music to be televised to millions of viewers.
In the late 90s/early 2000s, when pop music—dominated mostly by young white acts like Britney and Christina—had music networks like MTV’s Total Request Live on lock, BET’s 106 & Park was the answer. From Freestyle Fridays to premiering then up and coming acts like Nicki Minaj and Trey Songz to being the last ones to ever interview the late Aaliyah, 106 & Park had to have been one of the biggest draws for the network in the new millennium.
It didn’t stop there. Rap City, hosted by radio legend Big Tigger, holds the record for being the longest running hip-hop TV show in history, and it was another fan favorite with appearances and Freestyle Booth segments by rap music’s grittiest and unapologetic artists like 50 Cent and Lil’ Wayne. There was also ComicView, a late-night stand-up comedy show.
There was College Hill, a reality show centered around the lives of HBCU students, Sunday Best, a gospel version of American Idol, and BET Uncut that aired explicit music videos late-night on the weekends (which some of my peers tried to sneak watch). We even had BET Nightly News reporting on Black news stories that might not get coverage otherwise. The cherry on the top for the nearly 40-year network was the BET Awards (which first took place in 2001) that became the award show to truly capture the zeitgeist of Black popular culture in an industry that overlooks our achievements time and time again. BET had even reached a point of being written about by academics on its impact, whether it was good or bad.
Despite all the success, somewhere along the way, BET sadly lost their magic touch. As the late 2000s rolled into our current decade, digital/social media platforms like YouTube, Netflix, and Twitter kept more and more millennials away from television.
106 & Park, which failed to keep its viewership afloat due to YouTube and social media being the place for artists to break their new video (and careers), was canceled in 2014. BET Nightly News, BET Uncut, Rap City, ComicView (until its revival in 2014), College Hill, Sunday Best all saw cancellations, between the years of 2005 and 2015, respectively.
Eventually, the 2010s saw BET struggling to come up original content that was both of quality and able to keep an audience. Many people criticized R&B singer Keyshia Cole, who had several reality shows with BET for showing the worse of Black families on television, especially in the age of Barack and Michelle Obama gracing the White House.
New shows got added to the lineup, such as The Mo’Nique Show, The Rundown with Robin Thede, and The Real Husbands of Hollywood that ended up being short-lived. Attempts were even made to reboot or revive shows from other networks like MTV’s Punk’d, CW’s The Game and VH1’s Hit the Floor, all have either been canceled or are currently falling under the way line of ratings.
The channel’s only saving graces for the past eight years have been Being Mary Jane, the annual BET Awards, The New Edition Story, and The Bobby Brown Story. The scripted series starring Gabrielle Union would clock in average 2.6 million viewers and take home several NAACP Image Awards while the BET Awards continued to wow us with their performances and larger-than-life hosts. Unfortunately, the network canceled Being Mary Jane in 2017 and the BET Awards delivered a lackluster show this past year with Jamie Foxx making us all cringe horribly.
You could interpret this as me bashing BET, but that’s simply not the case. It’s constructive criticism. I’m disappointed in BET. The cultural relevance they once had in the Black community can now be found on other channels and streaming services like Netflix, OWN, and to the lesser extent, HBO, ABC, and FOX. BET could also be giving us game-changing shows and films like Dear White People, Luke Cage, and Nappily Ever After, but it isn’t.
Instead, the network continues to air reruns of classics while producing mediocre shows and reality series. I’m left asking, Where is the HBCU sports coverage or a nationally syndicated news show (whether morning or night) that exclusively covers Black news? Where are the talk shows for Black millennials’ favorite Black activists/political analysts like Angela Rye and Ta-Nehisi Coates? Where was BET when writers-producers like Issa Rae, Donald Glover, and Ava DuVernay were trying to get their show ideas picked up? Black Entertainment Television should be a haven for Black entertainment and culture, but it just isn’t.
So, what is the antidote? Perhaps cleaning house and hiring young creatives and executives who genuinely understand the culture, to rebrand the network entirely with fresh new ideas and perspectives. I’m just rooting for BET to remind us of why we first fell in love with it.