Black Entertainment Television (BET), Founded by Robert L. Johnson, launched on January 25, 1980. It has been a fixture in every African American household ever since. What started as a lineup of music videos, and reruns of popular black sitcoms grew into one of the biggest and most important networks in modern television history. The first jolt of energy came when Video Soul premiered in 1981. The program dedicated to showcasing music videos from the R&B and Soul artists of the day became a cultural phenomenon that’s still relevant today.
Programs like Video Soul and helped BET begin to gain an audience; but it wasn’t until shows like Teen Summit, Comic View, and Bobby Jones Gospel that the channel began to grow even more. In 1991, the network became the first black-controlled TV company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It only continued to grow from there. Throughout the 90s BET became an all-around staple for black entertainment and news. They showcased African Americans through music, film, and original programming. Many black entertainers had a platform to shine that they weren’t given anywhere else. When Yo MTV Raps went off the air Rap City picked up the slack left behind. Rushing home to make sure you didn’t miss some of the best music videos Hip Hop had to offer became an everyday occurrence for most adolescents. The Booth became a staple in Hip Hop culture that hasn’t been duplicated since. Midnight Love picked up where Video Soul left off and helped bring some of the biggest R&B acts to the forefront. Comic View may have been considered a PG version of Def Comedy Jam, but it helped some of the greatest comedians be seen in more households.
It grew, even more, going into the new millennium when the network was purchased by Viacom for 3 billion dollars. No longer a black-owned company many were afraid BET would lose its identity, but soon came 106 & Park and the BET Awards. These programs, along with Viacom’s backing, launched the network into more homes. At one point in time 106 & Park became so popular it began beating Total Request Live (TRL), the seminal video countdown show at the time, in ratings. It was a movement that helped propel some of the biggest black musical artists we currently have today. Meanwhile, the BET Awards also established itself as a legitimate award show that could capture your attention and leave you satisfied.
In 2005, Robert Johnson retired from the network, turning over his titles of president and chief executive officer to former BET vice president Debra L. Lee. Many consider this a dark time for BET. By now many other networks such as MTV and VH1 had begun to catch up to BET’s dominance. Content from black creatives was starting to be accepted on platforms outside of BET and it started making people find their entertainment elsewhere. This resulted in lower ratings for marquee programming and we began to lose some of our favorite shows. Shows such as HITS: From the Streets, Cita’s World, and countless other shows. Even though we started getting great programming like College Hill, Reed Between the Lines, Baldwin Hills, and more it wasn’t enough. We would eventually lose Rap City, Midnight Love, and Comic View. Years would go by with BET working to figure out how to get back on top.
A renaissance of sorts occurred around 2011 when The Game was brought on BET from the CW. Soon shows like Real Husbands of Hollywood, Second Generation Wayans, and Being Mary Jane came into the picture. These programs breathed new life into BET that helped bring back some of its prominences. The run continued with shows like Zoe Ever After, and the partnership with web-based distributor Black&SexyTV. Even with so much great content being put on the network ratings still became an issue and many great programs continued to get canceled. This then led to one of the biggest moments in modern television. The 3-night mini-series chronicling New Edition. The New Edition Story broke rating records across the board and made many viewers who left BET behind have to acknowledge their greatness. This continued with the Bobby Brown Story following a year later. In the midst of all of this many new shows came to light. Shows like The Quad, Rebel, In Contempt, and Tales. Some of which have already been canceled. Another issue that BET has run into is how hard it is to get ahold of. Prior to 2017 Viacom had a dispute with many cable providers preventing the channel from being seen in millions of households. We are also in the streaming age which has allowed many consumers to opt out of cable in general. If a show isn’t on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon in this era it might as well not exist. This puts us in the predicament BET is currently in.
The newest programs on the network are entitled American Soul and Boomerang. American Soul tells the story of Don Cornelius and the creation of his legendary music and dance program Soul Train. Boomerang is based on the 1992 film of the same name that stars Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Robin Givens, Martin Lawrence, and countless others. It is described as an updated version that explores contemporary workplace dynamics, including the changing role of gender, office politics, relationships and the conflicts between Generation X and millennials. I initially was very skeptical of the show, but after viewing the first episode I was very much impressed. Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record of continuation stories of great films of TV, but Boomerang successfully picks up 17 years from where the movie left off. We don’t see Eddie Murphy or Halle Berry, but they are married with successful businesses run by both of them. They also have a daughter named Simone, who the story is centered around. It also chronicles the son of Robin Givens’ character Bryson. Both are working to find their own path in the world as ambitious, young professionals. The show is executive produced by Lena Waithe, who is currently on a hot streak with shows like The Chi, and much more to come.
Watching this show made me realize that BET has been getting a bad reputation for far too long. There are many reasons why people are not tuning into the channel anymore, but I am a person who sees the real effort the network has been putting in to win us back. It may be hard for us to be able to get any of the programs, but I personally think it’s worth the effort. Boomerang and American Soul currently air every Tuesday night on BET. Be sure to give it a watch.