BET and Robert Johnson: Problematic Contradictions

Black Entertainment Television (BET) is an important part of current literature surrounding the representations of blackness on television.  This chaRobert Johnsonnnel seemingly employs new programming to reach a black audience, something not done by any other channel on television.  Additionally, it shows old portrayals of blacks on network television, showing reruns of shows like Sanford and Sons and Good Times.  BET is a dominant channel on television today, making it seem like racial progress is being made.  However, BET’s practices are problematic from its very roots, and permeate throughout the channel in numerous ways.

When Robert Johnson founded BET in 1980, it seemed that blacks would finally have an exclusive place for authentic representation on television.  Johnson wanted to make a channel representing blackness in a deeper way, not just through music videos and other “shallow” representations. The channel immediately utilized catchphrase sayings such as “Black Star Power” to create a sense of identity among viewers.  These phrases exuded themes reminiscent of the black power movement in the 1960’s, and were meant to bring blacks together.  However, Johnson’s underlying business agenda was evident from the start—BET had to portray authentic blackness while also appeasing a white audience.  This is where the underlying contradiction begins.

From the beginning, Johnson viewed BET as a business venture.  Johnson was connected to many wealthy (white) businessmen, many of whom funded BET when it was first introduced to tBETelevision.  BET, while seemingly a place of authentic representation for blacks, actually commoditized black bodies in a way comparable to the manner in which they were commoditized during times of slavery.  This is problematic because the channel was operating in a way that completely contradicted the representations it supposedly strived to push forward.  Furthermore, the reruns of shows like Sanford and Sons and Good Times allowed outdated misrepresentations of blacks to be shown alongside newer, “true” representations of blacks, a contradiction in itself.  BET brought a certain amount of power to blacks while simultaneously exploiting and making them a commodity—a true contradiction.

Other, possibly more authentic channels representing the black population existed, but these channels never successfully made their way into the national market.  Johnson recognized the lack of black representation in the television market, and created a monopoly based on those absent representations.  It is important to recognize the contradictions in BET and understand that while representations seem authentic, underlying complications of contradiction exist.  BET should not be viewed as a televisual center for authentic blackness, but rather a medium where viewers can go to see relatable black bodies.

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