For a good 15 year stretch, Black Entertainment Television was the most single most important HBCU asset Black American pop culture. The network did not have the reach and resonance of ‘A Different World,’ but the network used events, content and longevity to infuse HBCU culture into a variety of discussions held by a generation of black youth.
BET’s Black College Football Game of the Week was appointment television during a period when HBCUs were ending their peak as national mid-major football brands. The network was a reliable venue for HBCU football fans to watch teams, bands and programs which would eventually be boxed out and then bought out by network and cable sports companies.
Teen Summit regularly featured HBCU students and professors, discussing important issues facing the black community. It was the perfect complement to ‘A Different World,’ which used comedy and drama to address issues through the lens of young adulthood, while Teen Summit had live audiences asking live questions to live experts and answers that fit the needs of soon-to-be college students.
The network’s black college tour, which apparently was last active in 2014, helped thousands of students across the country to see HBCU life on campus, particularly from social perspectives. College Hill, for all of its flaws and stereotyping, was also a resource for recruitment.
But now, the network is limited to a few passing mentions of HBCUs on its broadcast platform, and to select headlines on its website. And then we see a headline like this, for what is a very serious issue involving Alabama A&M University.
Putting the sexual innuendo aside, what happened to the bond between HBCUs and BET? What happened to HBCU culture being a profitable sell for BET to corporate sponsors? It can’t be dwindling enrollment numbers on campus, because brands like the CIAA basketball tournament, the Magic City Classic and Turkey Day Classic still attract millions in corporate partners and thousands of HBCU graduates and students.
It can’t be because BET is no longer a black-owned media company, because white board members and officers at Viacom give the network full reign to develop quality shows like ‘Being Mary Jane’ and to come at Stacey Dash at will.
There is room for BET to develop news, public affairs and pop cultural programming around HBCU themes; the same kind of programming that helped to make the network a cable television powerhouse in the mid-90’s along with music videos and coverage of social justice movements during the era. HBCUs today reflect the struggles of black people more than they ever have, facing legislative, political and social pressure to die or to be absorbed into predominantly white institutional culture – while BET misses the opportunity to shape narratives around this struggle.
Once upon a time when BET had a reputable news imprint, the network surely would have been at the forefront of HBCU merger and closure threats, falling enrollment, campus crime, and financial struggles. Instead, only a proud few are working to let the public know about the threats which loom over black college campuses nationwide.
If we’re being honest, there’s only so much we can expect from a network which is no longer black owned, and faces immense pressure to appear “black” while degrading the “black brand” with every advertising dollar collected. BET is in the unenviable position of encouraging political awareness without actually reporting or provoking free thought on the political issues that matter. Black sitcoms now replace original news and programming, because the network can’t overcome its regrettable abandoning of socially conscious content in exchange for shows that could more efficiently sell cheeseburgers, hair straightener, Cadillacs and car insurance.
But then again, its hard to expect more from a leadership team staffed with just one HBCU graduate, and easy to see why HBCU culture just doesn’t fit with the larger commercial agenda for the network. HBCUs help black people to live longer, wealthier, wiser lives; BET is designed to promote an exaggerated image of black affluence and power.
Here’s hoping that they’ll both stick around long enough to find their way back to each other, in benefit of us all.