A few years back, Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television) spoke at the Carmel Art & Film Festival in Montgomery County, CA. Her speech was a bit…surprising. She talked about how much she hated the programming and how she thought that the network reinforced negative stereotypes about Black folk. With my recent posts about how negatively Black folk are portrayed in the media, I began thinking about BET. What was up with them? Sheila Johnson says she think the network’s been ruined:
“I think we squandered a really important cable network, when it really could have been the voice of Black America. We’re losing our voice as a race as a result. I’m really worried about what our young people are watching. There are so many young people who are using the television as a babysitter. We have parents who are not being parents and not monitoring what their children are watching.”
Sheila founded the network in 1980, along with her then husband, media tycoon, Bob Johnson. In 2000, the couple sold BET to Viacom for upwards of 1 billion dollars. Johnson says she’s actually ashamed of what BET has become.
“Don’t even get me started. I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it… I’m ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth. Society and government really believe [the AIDS] problem has gone away. People don’t know that this disease is still around.” “When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television.”
Sheila then went on to talk about the good ol’ days, when BET was living up to what she and her husband had envisioned.
“We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it at all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists…and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”
Like her, I remember what great programming BET used to have. Teen Summit was one of my favorite shows. Now, I can’t really say that I even HAVE a favorite show on BET. “Being Mary Jane” is probably at the top of my list at this point.
With all of that being said, do you think Ms. Johnson is being hypocritical? I mean, Viacom IS owned and operated by WHITE men. The executive chairman, being Sumner Redstone. What did they expect to happen?
My question is, did the money cause their focus to get blurry, and allow them to lose sight of the vision they had back in 1980? For them, was the money more important than upholding the legacy of Black Entertainment Television?
What do you think of BET now? And is Sheila Johnson a hypocrite?