A Brief History of Black Entertainment Television

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The Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable television network was launched by cable lobbyist Robert L. Johnson in the 1980s. The network originated as two hours of weekly programming, with music videos becoming a staple asset to the programming. However, it wasn’t till 1988 that BET debuted BET News, hosted by journalist Ed Gordon. The show focused on issues relevant to the black community and pop culture, bringing black voices to the focus on national television. In 1991, the network became the first black-controlled TV company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and so was breaking the boundaries of black entertainment and creating a space for the voices that were marginalised by white America.

1980s America saw the rise of the race riots and this network became essential in breaking the news about black Americans. As said by the network’s founder “there’s so much news about blacks that doesn’t get out to the rest of the country… BET is in the position to be a pioneer in black-oriented news”. This news became the most popular aspect of BET. Gordon was a household name and hosted a variety of programs such as Black Men Speak Out: The Aftermath, which related to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where Rodney King was the victim of police brutality from 4 different officers. Gordon even conducted the first interview with then President George H.W. Bush after the riots. This further highlights the impact BET had on the American public, transforming the way news on black Americans was received. The Black Men Speak Out series continues today, but not on BET. Instead, it is a series between Gordon and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 2001, BET established its own award show BET Awards which recognises and celebrates the talent of black people in music, film, sports and many other fields of entertainment. In the 2020 award show there were wins from stars such as Megan Thee Stallion, Lizzo, and Lebron James, as well as for the movie Queen & Slim.

Despite the extraordinary work of the channel in its early days, many black scholars have argued that BET perpetuates and justifies racism by demonstrating the stereotypes showing negative images of the black community. BET co-founder Sheila Johnson in an interview said she felt “ashamed” of what the network had become, she was quoted saying “I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it”. The reason Johnson felt this way was due to the video revolution in the early 2000s, where BET cut key news programs such as Teen Summit in 2002, which was devoted to addressing the issues faced by African-American teens and BET Nightly News in 2005 which was focused on the black American community. The removal of these programs led to many viewers feeling disillusioned with the network. As Johnson said, “it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television” but instead it moved away from its public affairs programming.

Today BET programming has a wide variety from comedy, news, music, sitcoms and documentaries. It is a great network which has produced amazing content such as the 2018 biopic miniseries The Bobby Brown Story, talk show The Wendy Williams Show, and the 2016 documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.

BET is available to watch in the UK. You can watch the trailer for The Bobby Brown Story below.

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Editor 2020/21 and a History student with a Britney Spears addiction.

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