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BET shaky, even in its Sunday best

December 04, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Tonight's live finale of "Sunday Best," Black Entertainment Television's gospel-themed reality series, will most likely shower praise on one of two aspiring vocalists competing for the honor of "America's next great gospel star."

More significantly, the singing competition is poised to end BET's year on a high note after several months of controversy.

A jubilant mashup of "American Idol" and the black church, "Sunday Best" is part of a strategy by BET President Debra L. Lee and President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin to transform the Viacom-owned network, a frequent target of critics who claim it has perpetuated negative black images since its launch in 1980. The series has scored some of the network's best ratings this season, attracting almost a million viewers each week.

As BET enters the last stage of a three-year plan to broaden its appeal with original programming and scripted series, Hudlin maintains that "Sunday Best" and other new series such as "Baldwin Hills," "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is" and "American Gangster" vividly illustrate how BET has moved well beyond its menu of raunchy rap videos and footage of scantily clad dancers.

"It's an unprecedented time at Black Entertainment Television," Hudlin proclaimed to a gathering of TV reporters last July. The veteran producer and director, hired by the network in 2005 largely because of his Hollywood connections, pointed out that BET has been developing "the largest, most diverse aggregation of black programming in television history."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Black Entertainment Television: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about Black Entertainment Television identified Debra L. Lee as the president of BET. She is the chairman and chief executive of BET Networks.

But even though "Sunday Best" and many of its other series have connected with the network's core audience, BET has sparked as much criticism as ever, shadowed by stumbles and questions surrounding its programming.

Although the in-your-face videos may be harder to find, leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby and the NAACP have complained that BET is still too reliant on negative African American stereotypes. They city the people-behaving-badly series "Hot Ghetto Mess"; a foul-mouthed animated video "Read a Book," which liberally uses the N-word; and "Hell Date," a "faux" reality show with the punch line that features a little person in a devil's costume ("You're on 'Hell Date!' ").

"I was prepared to forgive the crude language and lack of creativity if there was a message encouraging viewers to read and otherwise conduct themselves responsibly," said Jackson last summer of the "Read a Book" video in a statement released on his behalf by his Rainbow Coalition organization. Jackson's statement went on to add that the video "takes us into the abyss." A grass-roots coalition of church members has staged regular weekend marches each week outside the East Coast homes of Lee and Viacom Chief Executive Phillippe Dauman, protesting that BET does not reflect a broad spectrum of the black cultural experience.

Much of the network's schedule is revamps of existing shows on other networks (Fox's "American Idol," the syndicated series "Blind Date" and MTV's "The Hills"). And BET endured one of its most embarrassing chapters last summer when it attempted to rename "Hot Ghetto Mess" as "We Got to Do Better" to deflect controversy and then hung on to the original name in the broadcast versions of all the episodes.

Sitting recently in the network's Santa Monica headquarters, Hudlin appeared unbowed by the criticisms, contending that the continuing furor over the network is indicative of a long-standing frustration.

"Changing peoples' perception of the network will be a long time challenge," Hudlin said. "As successful as the network is, there's an image that 80% of our programming is just videos, when it's actually less than 20%."

He added: "People don't pay attention to the big story: that BET has heard their complaints and frustrations, and that we're going to fix them and transform the network. . . . I underestimated people's willingness to give us the benefit of the doubt. They just aren't willing to."

Indeed, BET is in a difficult position -- caught in its legacy, its ambitions, its financial limitations and the long-standing hopes that the network should be an all-inclusive stop for contemporary African American culture.

"There's this older black audience that is nostalgic for what they hoped BET would be," said Mark Anthony Neal, a teacher of black popular culture and director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies at Duke University. "But the folks who run BET really have to be honest about the demographic of their audience. If we're talking about African Americans over 35, that's not their audience. Older audiences are turned off by a lot of stuff they do, like 'Hell Date.' "

Neal also pointed out that BET is judged and criticized for its images, while series such as "Flavor of Love" and "I Love New York," VH1's reality-comedy programs that spotlight outrageous antics by African Americans, are virtually ignored by black leaders and advocacy groups.

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