From Wed Mar 14 16:32:31 2001
From: Lee Hubbard <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Not Black Like Me
Precedence: bulk

Not Black Like Me

By Vernon Clement Jones, The Globe and Mail, 19 February 2001

Black Entertainment Television came to Canada vowing to showcase black culture. But disillusioned viewers say what it delivered was mainly nasty stereotypes and explicit videos. Where, they wonder, is the Canadian content?

With a rallying cry of by blacks and for blacks, Black Entertainment Television burst onto the arguably colourless Canadian TV screen. Heck, there is no argument—in 1997, it was colourless. But the U.S. specialty channel promised to change all that. So we 600,000 black Canucks sat back and watched. Well actually, if truth be told, we sat back and squirmed.

When BET came to Toronto, we were all excited, says Joyce Bannister, a founding member of Toronto's Black Business and Professional Association and a member of the Order of Canada. But it got so vulgar and was putting down black people, especially women, that I stopped watching. Let's face it.

These negative images lend themselves to some pretty bad stereotyping, and I'm not like that.

Bannister's not alone. Many of the country's blacks ask why a channel for which they lobbied the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission—and which is now seen in 2.4 million Canadian homes—has brought little but wildly explicit music videos, dumbed-down programming and the revival of nasty stereotypes?

BET came here invoking black solidarity to get the support of local blacks, says Clifton Joseph, a correspondent with the CBC's media watchdog program, Undercurrents. When it had our backing, it abandoned us and then bombarded us with jive-talk images.

The two-time Gemini Award-winner points to the absence of Canadian content in BET. It is content, he says, that Canadians were promised, but BET never delivered.

The Washington-based broadcaster was launched 21 years ago in the United States, when its founder, Robert Johnson, then a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, vowed to fill the black void left by the big American networks. The epitome of black entrepreneurialism, he planned to show black America in Technicolor splendor instead of the stereotypical black and white images his country was trading in.

Cleared by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to broadcast in Canada in 1997 because there were no black Canadian stations, BET represented its programming as a showcase of black culture—including a mix of drama, social studies, music and politics. Yet today, no less than 65 per cent of the package is music-video programming. And it's these videos that attract the lion's share of criticism. Here's a sampling.

Cita's World is one of the 16 video countdown shows that eat up BET time slots. Cita's the computer-generated image of a fast-talking, tell-the-truth-so-long-as-it's-raunchy kind of sistah from deep-up in the American 'hood. Attitude doesn't even come close.

In one video currently on the playlist, Danger by Mystikal, a black girl crawls across a bar counter, her large breasts barely contained by a bikini top. She tongues the face of the fully clothed rapper. Another shot has Mystikal lying in a bed as he's groped by a bevy of bikini-clad beauties. Never was the Beach Boys lyric two girls for every boy so passe. Try 20, Brian.

In another video, Pump Hard, hip-hop artist 8 Ball sits on the hood of his Bentley—this season's luxmobile of choiceᡄas a couple of bikini babes grind their crotches into his appreciative face.

These two artists are by no means alone. Almost all the videos on BET adhere to this formula of T and A and more T and A. The hosts of BET shows seem similarly cast from a single mould. It was one that I thought had been broken when America tired of Amos and Andy's muggings for the camera and Rochester's Yessums in response to Jack Benny's commands.

But I find my self longing for TV as innocuous as that fifties fare when I watch one BET host called Hits spend an hour asking white folks in D.C. to eat his booger. Neither Amos nor Andy would've gone there.

Few topics of discussion are as sensitive as the issue of black media representation. I asked several media-savvy Torontonians—blacks, whites and Asians—to join me for a weekend of watching this controversial channel and invited them to be part of a panel that would offer some analysis.

At 27, one of the panelists, a black woman, sits smack dab in the middle of BET's target audience (19 to 34 years of age). And she's not the slightest bit bashful about discussing the American broadcaster's impact on her community. BET is completely a mismatch for the black Canadian market, says Vivian Barclay, a deejay on Toronto's alternative radio station, CKLN.

We are not those people depicted on the videos or on the actual programs. In Canada, we don't have the statistics of one in four men in jail and we don't need our kids fed on a steady diet of words like ‘bitches,’ and ‘hoes.’

It takes a little more coaxing to elicit the opinions of another panelist, this one white. I'm staggered by the depiction of women and men and the relationship between them in these videos, says Jagg Griffith, a professor of journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University. The whole programming thrust of the station, as I saw it, is defined by stereotypes of the most egregious kind.

These images in no way resemble the black women in my classes or any black women I know.

Like Griffith, the next panelist is something of an outsider when it comes to black entertainment—he's South Asian. But reporter Errol Narazeth is not afraid to speak his mind on the music he covers for the Toronto Sun—R&B, hip-hop and soul.

Racists must be having a field day with BET, offers Nazareth. There are people who don't come into contact with different communities and if the media is shaping their opinions they're getting a pretty twisted view of black life. Perhaps when they see enough images like that and see kids trying to live up to those images they put two and two together and get four. As a minority living in a racist society, image is everything.

BET exerts enormous influence on the Canadian hip-hop scene, says Nazareth, who promotes the Canadian artists in this fringe industry gone mainstream.

Still, Canadian rappers are more likely to drive VW Bugs than the Bentleys, Benzes and Broncos of their American counterparts. And except for coverage of Toronto's Caribana parade, Canadian performers rarely make it to BET's playlist.

The CRTC doesn't demand Canadian content from BET, and it shows. In our three days tuned into the broadcaster, not one Canadian artist appeared. That's not surprising because BET is virtually the same in Canada as it is in the U.S. The programming here is on a direct feed from D.C., says Yvette Thomas, the channel's only Canadian representative.

Roslyn Doaks, BET's vice-president of special markets, explains: The CRTC doesn't require BET to have any Canadian programming. None. And we have never promised anything to anyone. But, of our own initiative, we do showcase Canadian talent like what's her name? Deborah Cox.

As for any criticism of her network's music programming, Doaks says BET doesn't make the videos: It just plays them. Back in front of the tube, I watch the production credits on a basketball game roll to a close.

This BET sportscast was an all-black affair—97 per cent of BET's 530 employees are people of colour. And for every B-ball player on the court, there were at least three qualified BET techies—cameramen, writers, directors and producers.

Bannister, one of the panelists, questions whether BET's programming is preparing its young viewers to fill these media-type jobs or just basketball hoops and Big Mac orders.

The truth is that very few black kids are going to make it in professional sports or the music business, says Bannister. They need to see some positive programs to empower themselves.

But we may be asking too much of BET, says another black panelist, former CBC journalist Hamlin Grange. After all, he says, many new channels start out green, or in BET's case, raw.

When BET first hit the airwaves in Canada, I was singularly unimpressed. You might as well have called it ‘Booty Television,’ says Grange, now the head of ProMedia Productions. But a lot of us are forgetting how right here in Toronto CITY-TV launched itself with blue movies and the soft porn series Casanova. There's a reason for that: When you start up you need to get people to watch, but, hopefully, you move beyond that. From what I've seen, BET is starting to do that.

On the last day of our weekend BET watch, infomercials and Southern evangelists duke it out for the biggest cut of the Sunday sked. But the white Bible thumpers, who seem to preach against every sin in the good book but racism, will lose this battle: Infomercials are essential revenue for many cable companies. There is some serious, meaty content on the channel. Tonight with Tavis Smiley and BET News with Ed Gordon are late-night shows covering the black America that rarely makes it onto the newscasts of the big networks, unless it's rioting in Bensonhurst, Bedford-Stuyvesant or the South Bronx.

However, Marwon Lucas, a 21-year-old student at Centennial College in Toronto, complains that while Smiley and Gordon cover stories of interest to blacks in the States—and do it well—they fail to cast their nets north of the border, to their 600,000 black Canadian cousins.

Whether BET ever expands its content to reflect the tastes of black Canadians now rests in the hands of one of America's biggest corporations.

In a $3-billion (U.S.) deal, Robert Johnson recently sold BET's holdings—including three cable channels, two radio stations, a publishing house and a film company—to the media giant Viacom, parent company of CBS, MTV and other big brand names.

If Lucas had his way, Viacom's first step would be to move the two late-night shows with Gordon and Smiley to primetime, where they belong.

All I hope is that Viacom does make some difference—stops recycling the same videos and maybe brings in some coherent hosts, he says.

After my BET blitz, I'm in an exercise class trying to work off three days of junk food. And I can't help wondering why, if black Canadians are so offended by BET, only one or two have complained to the CRTC.

The fitness instructor distracts me from my train of thought by turning up the volume on a song by Britney Spears, soon to be followed by a medley of Madonna and then some techno stuff. Looking around at the happy white faces, I realize my question has just been answered. All of BET's stereotyped images notwithstanding, where else but BET are black Canadians going to get some black music?

Now that's what you call being caught between the devil and the deep white sea.