BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Here's a clip from a story this week on the Black Entertainment Television public affairs program BET Tonight. [MUSIC]
ED GORDON: Good evening, everyone; I'm Ed Gordon. We've all heard the stories - the multi-platinum selling singer who files for bankruptcy - a group who sues its label to get paid or out of a contract. Artists' rights -- what record labels require from talent....
BOB GARFIELD:There won't be many clips like that on BET because the show won't be around for a new season. BET Tonight along with the Sunday Issue Forum and Lead Story and the youth-oriented Teen Summit have been canceled, two years after BET's sale by founder and CEO Bob Johnson to Viacom. When Viacom acquired BET, critics feared for the channels community service mission. Among them, Michael Eric Dyson, the Avalon Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins me now. Professor, welcome to OTM.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So has the other shoe dropped at BET? Is this what everyone was expecting and fearing?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I'm afraid so. I think that everyone was fearful that sooner or later -- and now it's sooner rather than later -- the mission to inform African-American people from a broadbased news network perspective would be somehow relegated to the periphery and what would come front and center is what was inching up there anyway, a bunch of entertainment that was not geared toward the intellectual or creative stimulation of its audience.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now let's be fair here -- Bob Johnson is many things -- a missionary of social activism is not one of them--
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD:-- and even under - and of course he still manages BET - but under his sole ownership, he always made the point that Black Entertainment Television Network was a business largely for and about Blacks, but it wasn't a black business in the sense that issues black would be put before issues of profit and audience. Is Viacom any different?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Perhaps not. And I think that yes, we don't want to be disingenuous. The man is there to make money, and as the people would say in the street -- "We ain't mad at him. Make your money." But you can make money and make meaning at the same time. You can do well and do good. And I think that the problem here is that you can't be exempt from critique, even if you weren't a so-called "black company" - if you were, you know, if you were saying look, I'm about business first - that's fine. Then let's talk about the business of news. Let's talk about the business of serving that constituency - network televisions - they provide an outlet for public service. We can't exempt Mr. Johnson or his company or Viacom, now having bought it, from the same critical inquiry that we would launch against him were he not owned by this large behemoth.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's take a hard look at one of the business problems. Older people watch the news; younger people watch videos.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD:Unfortunately, advertisers aren't interested very much in older viewers. They only want those young eyeballs. In this case, BET was saddled with the same demographic problem that CBS and CNN and everybody else is faced with. You say they just have to respond to it differently.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, look -- it's not as if there is a lack of exposure to that vaunted, ostensibly important demographic -- the 18 to 35 or what some such they're looking for. The reality is, is that you've got enough T&A and behind-shaking going on on BET to glut the network. The reality is, is that most of the program is geared toward them -- 106th, you know, Street and Rap City -- the marketers can have field day! What we're talking about is a hour show maybe on Saturday for Teen Summit once a week; Lead Story is once a week on Sunday! Perhaps a re-play later on. And Every Night with Ed Gordon for half an hour. So you're not speaking of an enormous time commitment on the part of BET or Viacom, its parent owners.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, but you're talking about loss leaders and you know they just buried Roone Arledge, and since he got in the TV business in about 1982, news divisions haven't been run anywhere as loss leaders; they've been run as profit centers.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: But, but look - if they're in that deep at the hock that they need those three hours to salvage the station, then they are in deep trouble, brother, and that won't help them.
BOB GARFIELD:Now BET is not abandoning news all together; it, it will continue with its nightly news and with documentaries and specials. Not good enough for you?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: No, not at all. Well, you know, Jackie Reed [sp?] does an extraordinarily good job on BET, a half hour news show or not. But of course not. A particular issue - like Trent Lott -they're not going to take more than a couple of minutes on a BET news program to address that, but they could address it at length on Lead Story. They could invite Mr. Lott or invite people who are involved in the Congress to come and air their views. That is now evaporated. That cannot be done suitably on a half hour news program. We won't see the wide swath of perspective and ideology that regularly shows up on BET. It's an entirely different perspective than the kind of narrow framework into which you're pigeonholed on network or even some other cable outlets.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Eric Dyson, thank you very much.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thank you very kindly.
BOB GARFIELD:Professor Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of, among other things, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupak Shakur