‘Don’t Sleep with TJ Holmes’: BET needs news, not another comedy show

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Like many, when CNN anchor T.J. Holmes announced last year that he would be leaving his post to join BET, I was left scratching my head. On paper, it looks like a backwards career move, going from one of the world’s premier cable news organizations to a network still best known for playing music videos that feature half naked women shaking everything but their heads in disapproval. Why would a seasoned news anchor choose to be associated with this hotbed of criticism?

With some thought, I warmed to the idea, seeing this a great coup for BET. It’s true, the cable network has come under lots of fire for the images of black America it transmits to the world, and over the past few years it has undergone a massive re-branding effort. Gone are the hours of music videos, and in their place are syndicated television sitcoms that have proven popular among black viewers.

They have invested most of the energy in putting on awards shows, notably the flagship BET Awards, but have also ventured into the realm of original scripted shows, reviving The Game after it was dropped from The CW and producing the Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm Jamal-Warner vehicle Reed Between the Lines. Neither have won much critical acclaim, but at the very least it appeared BET was doing something they hadn’t done in a long time: they were trying.

So the idea of bringing in Holmes and his solid television news background — he was an anchor on local news stations in Little Rock, Arkansas and San Francisco before going on to spend five years at CNN — started to make sense to me as a part of that re-branding. Here was BET’s signal that they were going to be taking seriously the issue of delivering news important to black America directly to black people. I had hope.

That hope diminished when BET announced their slate of new programming and offered a description of Holmes’ show that led not to just head scratching but full blown disbelief. Rolling with the moniker Don’t Sleep with T.J. Holmes, the show is billed as “a fresh new voice joining the ranks of Jon Stewart, Steven[sic] Colbert and Bill Maher.”

According to this description, Holmes will be joined by “hilarious ‘correspondents’” and “is sure to have viewers rolling with laughter over the absurdity of today’s hot-button issues. Speaking through a unique and smart African-American filter, T.J. invites the community to wake up on the issues that affect them; don’t sleep on the stories that mainstream news outlets won’t cover….DON’T SLEEP WITH T.J. HOLMES reports with keen focus to keep black America engaged and in the know.”

I can understand that BET is trying to capture a youth audience, because 18-24 year olds are the prime demographic when it comes to advertising dollars, but this just doesn’t make sense. BET hasn’t had a news program since it cancelled BET Nightly News in 2005. It abandoned BET Tonight, first hosted by Tavis Smiley and later Ed Gordon, in 2002, along with their other public affairs programming Lead Story and Teen Summit.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask BET to be all things to all people, and after all the “E” does stand for “entertainment,” but it does look to be squandering a great opportunity by taking this direction.

In Holmes, they have the potential to establish a serious news program focused on the issues and concerns of black America, an opportunity to highlight the work of black journalists, thinkers, and activists across the country that are otherwise locked out of the national agenda setting conversation. They don’t have to take the approach of The Daily Show to accomplish that.

Holmes possesses the background, looks and gravitas to hold down a more traditional, hard-hitting news program and make it appealing to youth demographic that is actually more politically engaged and interested than they are often given credit for. They aren’t only tuning in for Stewart and Colbert, but also Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Perry. And on the point of Harris-Perry and her show on MSNBC, the excitement surrounding that program underscores the desire for intellectual discourse among black folks to be elevated for wide consumption. BET and Holmes have an opportunity to capitalize on that, but appear content to throw away any good will this move may have afforded them.

That’s not to say they couldn’t have a satirical comedic news show on the network, but it would behoove them to hire an actual comedian. If they were making this move and had reached out to someone such as Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black, or Aisha Tyler, veteran comedian and currently co-host of The Talk, this would not have been a point of ridicule.

Both Thurston and Tyler are well-received comedians with history in television and involvement in politics. Thurston in particular has a background well-suited for a satirical news show, as he is digital director The Onion, and also brings with him a huge web presence. Both would appeal to the youth demographic BET is attempting to court.

I don’t want to pre-judge too much, as Don’t Sleep With T.J. Holmes has not even aired yet, and it would be unfair to declare it a failure before arrival. But it is another instance where BET looks to be making a wise decision, only to blow it in execution.

Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith