BET's 30 years of missed opportunities

OPINION - If you happen to watch BET Sunday evening and planned to see their 30-year anniversary show, you might have been in for a rude awakening...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you happened to watch BET this past Sunday evening and planned to see their 30-year anniversary show, you might have been in for a rude awakening. To the surprise of fans across the nation, the show simply didn’t air at the time it was scheduled. Well, it actually didn’t air at all. When the Washington Post asked what happened, BET’s representatives didn’t give an explanation other than the obvious: “It appears that we will not be airing the BET special this evening.”

The statement that BET sent to me in response to their very public snafu was a bit more informative but still cryptic:

“Unfortunately, BET 30: Moments and Movements experienced some unforeseen technical difficulties and a solution could not be reached before air time. We sincerely apologize to our viewers and will announce the new air date shortly.”

This, my friends, is what some might call an ‘SMH’ moment. Well, Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks, might call it another kind of moment, but I’ll refrain from using foul language. It is ironic that the 30th anniversary of BET would be celebrated by an incredibly public, highly embarrassing mistake of this magnitude. Like the baby’s daddy who can’t afford to pay child support, BET was nowhere to be found when it was time to air one of the most important shows in the network’s history. Yes my friends, that was “ghetto.”

Some might say that BET has spent 30 years missing other major opportunities with its programming. Some would also say that BET has spent 30 years missing opportunities to help properly shape the African-American community. When it came time for BET to fully embrace the esteemed honor of being the only network to serve the psychologically damaged descendants of slaves, they dropped the ball of social responsibility and picked up the club of capitalism. Nothing mattered to its founder Bob Johnson or BET more than maxing out the company’s revenues, even if it meant showing hip-hop videos all day long, every single day of the week.

So, even though Johnson long ago told the world that the “E” in BET doesn’t stand for “education,” he and his network were educating young black people nonetheless, giving them a daily textbook on self-destruction. Even Sheila Johnson, co-founder of the network, has admitted that BET played a role in promoting the sexual promiscuity that fuels the HIV epidemic in the black community. This is quite an “endorsement” from a person who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from the network’s existence.

So, BET executives, with all due respect, must fully recognize that they and the Johnsons have been significant in shaping black culture over the past 30 years. Whether these 30 years are worth celebrating, I’m not completely sure. One can certainly say that suddenly canceling its 30-year anniversary show with no warning whatsoever clearly puts BET in a class by itself among television networks.

I don’t hate BET and I’ve appeared on the network several times. I’ve seen some folks within the company work hard to change the image of the organization. Some of their shows, like The Top 25 Events that Misshaped Black America were informative and powerful reflections on the black experience.

But while there were some shows that inspired the best in us, more than enough BET shows have brought out the worst in us. Hip-hop music is reflected in almost every dimension of the African-American experience, and BET has helped to promote the worst of hip-hop, creating almost no standard for decency in the process. As a result, hip-hop music videos are unlike any other genre, where the booties are shaking 24-7 and artists get rich by sharing very specific instructions on how young black people can ruin their lives with substance abuse, an addiction to irresponsible consumption, sexual promiscuity and violence.

The fundamental question being asked is whether the massive mistake of failing to air the special was an idiosyncratic event or something that represents a far more pervasive problem and another step toward the network’s seemingly inevitable demise. Sadly enough, there are some who would cheer at the possibility of BET going down in flames, and it’s honestly difficult to convince them otherwise.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit>