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Some people howled in outrage when BET recently announced that it is shutting down its nightly newscast in lieu of hourly updates of the day’s events.  The 11pm half hour program was billed as a window to the Black world, offering Black Americans news stories they could not see on the other networks.  Since I never saw the show that way, the loss of BET Nightly News, while unfortunate, is not a big deal in the larger scheme of things. The reason why it won’t be such a loss is that the newscast was a failure, unable to enlighten those who watched its unimaginative, poorly produced content.  It wasn’t appointment television and it was unlikely to ever be.  It was yet another in a long stream of disappointments offered to us by the network that was supposed to be a reasonable representation of Black life.  Instead, BET went for the money and sold out Black people by over-representing the worst visual imagery possible.  I don’t believe that it has to be a zero-sum game; you can be dignified and still make money.

Newscasts are Money Losers

BET president and chief operating officer Debra Lee said in a press release, "With 24-hour news networks and everyone getting news off the Internet, our audience doesn't want to wait until 11 p.m. to find out what the news is."  That’s her way of saying the newscast was a money loser and she didn’t want to throw any more money down the toilet.  There’s only one problem with the statement:  It’s wrong.  If news at 11p.m. was not a demand of the community, then thousands of stations all over the country would not invest dollars and manpower in these broadcasts. 

Many stations across the nation record huge audiences at 11pm and the competition for viewers is as aggressive at that hour as it is during dinner time.  More resources are being poured into the late night newscasts than ever before, with live on-the-scene reporters, new stories not seen at 6 p.m., and the biggest investment of them all – HD broadcasts.  The late night market is such an attraction that ABC produces a newscast, “Nightline,” after the local shows that has been a solid moneymaker for the network for 26 years.  In fact, “Nightline” is reportedly undergoing a revamping that may result in it being expanded to an hour.  Late night news stations make these investments because they know there is a financial pay off.  But can BET make it profitable and worthwhile?!?

Production Values?  What Production Values?

The BET Nightly News was hampered by at least two forces.  First, it was surrounded by the kinds of shows that draw viewers who don’t watch the news. The newscast was a bad fit, existing in a sea of booty shaking and low-brow television.  You can’t place a pseudo-serious newscast in the midst of music videos and shows of that ilk and expect the current events show to do well.  Sadly, people who spend hours watching videos are not interested in the news.  Who believes that Black Americans interested in public policy or serious issues would sit through the latest Snoop Dogg soft porn to see the news?  How often was the newscast advertised during the day on the network and in other formats?  Did the news break new ground or just satisfy critics who believe a Black television network should be more than a place to watch Black men sexually abuse Black women?

Second, the production of the broadcast was bland and amateurish.  It looked as if it were produced by a bunch of inexperienced interns who were on a tight budget  Occasionally, there would be a ground breaking interview or story on an issue that had wide ranging relevance to African Americans.  But since Ed Gordon left the anchor desk, no real journalist has filled the seat.  Tavis Smiley is a commentator.  Jacqui Reed, a capable newsreader, does not possess the journalistic bona fides that lead viewers to believe that there is something valuable going on at 11 p.m.  She reads very well, but is nothing more than late night eye candy, a visual appetizer for men waiting for their rump shaking entrée – the late night videos that seem more appropriate for the Playboy Channel.

Promise Lost

Twenty years ago BET News started with two-minute news briefs that ran in the middle of Video Soul with Donnie Simpson.  I had high hopes that in twenty years, the network would be able to muster up some real competition in the cable news arena.  That never happened. 

I got even more excited when Viacom, which owns CBS News, bought the music network from Bob Johnson. I had visions that BET producers would join forces with seasoned CBS producers and create unique and stimulating news broadcasts that would tap into the Black audience worldwide.  I had a hope that it would be more than just Black faces reporting CBS News stories, that I would see in-depth reporting on Black issues, perhaps even heightened stories during “sweeps” periods.  Oops…my bad. No such thing happened. BET’s news management – despite the fact their business cards say CBS News – let a prime opportunity slip away.

Back to the Future?

I call out to TV One and The Black Family Channel. Help. Come to our collective rescue and bring us our news.  Surely you can find a way to make news delivery profitable in the context of your overall operation, particularly if your intent as a network is to show that Black-themed television can be profitable without the usage of degrading images of Black people.

There is a glimmer of hope.  While I think the BET statement announcing the end of the Nightly News overstated the competition posed by the Internet, this technology does bring the news to people whenever they want it.  There are a few important and credible Black-themed Internet sites that can provide in-depth coverage of Black issues and the number of such outlets is likely to increase as they fill the void left by BET.

Another option can be found in the hundreds of Black newspapers around the nation.  They, more than any other news sources, have given millions of African Americans news they can use.  They have been underappreciated stalwarts for generations in providing news for Black consumption and should be better supported than they are.  According to the National Newspaper Publishers Association, its member newspapers reach 12 million people per week – millions more than BET could ever hope for with its Nightly News.

I mourn less for the BET Nightly News, which is no big loss to me, than for the signal it sends:  News of interest and importance to Black people is less worthy of airing than music videos and comedy reruns.  It’s sad to think that the premiere Black-themed television network couldn’t find a way to make the news work and the tragedy will be if no media outlet – Black or white – fills the void. BET Nightly News is an example of promise lost.  It could have been so significant to such a large underserved segment of television viewers.  Now, we are left with nothing.  Then again, perhaps nothing is better than the something that was being offered to us.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, where he teaches courses in urban policy, policy evaluation, and governance and policy processes. Prior to joining the faculty in GMU, he was an analyst in American national government at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). He is the nephew of famed civil rights leader and former Congressman Rev. Walter Fauntroy. Michael is a regular radio and television commentator in Washington, D.C. and stations across the country.

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May 12 2005
Issue 138

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