It was not too long ago that O.J. Simpson pulled Black Entertainment Television into the television big top.
BET, the nation's only black-owned cable network, had been largely unknown to mainstream television audiences outside its core African American viewership until last January, when it scored a live interview with the man who was then the nation's most hotly sought-after celebrity: Simpson, acquitted double-murder suspect.
The Jan. 25 session between Simpson and BET news anchor Ed Gordon brought BET, which aired mostly rap music videos and infomercials, unprecedented scrutiny. Media critics and major news outlets--silently disgruntled that they were unable to get their own interviews with the football legend--questioned whether Gordon and BET had the news credibility to take on Simpson. Some of the criticism also pointed out that the network was the only TV outlet then willing to let Simpson advertise his video about the murder case.
Gordon's probing of Simpson received many positive reviews, however. With the resulting publicity, BET seemed poised to launch a higher profile in the television arena with a heavier focus on news and special programming.
But BET's star has dimmed in the months since then.
"I don't think anything has really changed with BET," said Kathy Haesele, senior vice president of Advanswers, a media-buying firm. "Everything is status quo with them. I don't know what this interview could have done for them in the long term. But they are back to where they were before."
Largely fueled from the furor over the interview, Gordon himself has prospered. He was recently hired at NBC News as an anchor for the new MSNBC cable channel and a correspondent for "Dateline NBC."
But while ratings for the network have improved somewhat--up 15% this year after a 40% drop late last year--none of the network's programming has received the attention the Simpson interview attracted. A cover story in the Los Angeles Reader recently blasted the network, saying that "BET has been sliding along for 15 years and it's just chronically disappointing, a grinding reminder that just because a black man's driving the bus doesn't mean it's going anywhere new."
Emphasis on news or topical programming has been pushed to the background, much as it was pre-Simpson, while the racy rap videos have returned. The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the youth director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said earlier this month at the organization's annual convention that many African American young people were afflicted with a "BET video mentality" that glorifies casual sex, violence and materialism.
BET may be the recipient of more barbs in coming months. Instead of trying to appeal to adults with more topical and in-depth news fare, the network is aggressively targeting the 18-34 demographic with youth-oriented and comedy programming. With a new campaign with the slogan "We Got It," the network is putting much of its energy into promoting "UnReal," a new music show that will showcase African American music scenes, fashions and celebrities.
Lydia N. Cole, BET's vice president of programming, is far from bowed when responding to criticism against the network, the perception that BET missed an opportunity to take advantage of the Simpson publicity and life after Gordon.
"There is not another network that is charged with caring to all the needs of an entire ethnic population," Cole said in an interview here last weekend as BET officials unveiled their fall schedule to the Television Critics Assn. "It's impossible to deliver everything that everyone wants. The criticism is really unfair and very narrow in perspective."
Cole added: "We are designed to be an entertainment network, and that is what our mission is. We are very much aware that targeting the 18-34 audience is not a decision that will be embraced entirely by older African Americans. But this is a business, and we have to compete with the Warner Bros. Network, UPN, Fox. The Simpson interview and its genre really falls into the smaller area of what we do."
Also, Cole said, when the network has responded with more topical programming, such as expanding news coverage or its "Teen Summit" discussion program, those same critics who blasted the lighter fare failed to support the more serious programs.
"For us to have capitalized on this attention would have meant taking a step back and coming up with a new strategy for the whole network," she said. "That was just too drastic."
As for the Simpson interview, Cole said, "Something like that only comes along once in a lifetime. It was the media frenzy, not BET, that drove the story. We were not doing anything really special. It was business as usual for us, and it went back to business as usual when it was over."
David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, a media advocacy group, said that BET was being unfairly criticized in the wake of Simpson.
Said Honig: "Yes, BET could have capitalized and gone the tabloid route, but they chose not to, with Simpson or any other story. Yes, they got a big publicity bump, but that doesn't boost long-term advertising. They would have had to have a story like that happen every month to get a bump. It just is not done."
Christine Murtuagh, vice president of the Media Edge, a media buying firm, said that BET has been paying more attention to its programming and target audience, which accounts for its growing ratings recovery.
Honig added that the white mainstream media still failed to give any credibility to BET following the Simpson interview. As for the loss of Gordon, he said, "Every medium-sized journalistic organization loses talent from time to time. Every CNN anchor aspires to go to NBC."
Cole said BET was actively looking for an established journalist to replace Gordon, adding that she is "very confident about our future. We feel we're embarking on a new era, and we're very excited."