News

A Peril of Media Concentration?

7/22/2001 8:00 PM Eastern

Viacom Inc. acquired Black Entertainment Television for a whopping $3 billion dollars last November, and payback time has arrived for both sides — in a big way.

Bottom line: More BET employees will be terminated and Viacom will likely suffer another round of bad ink in the already vocal and displeased African-American community.

Last week, Viacom announced that CBS News staffers would "help" shape news and public-affairs programming for BET. Of course, that synergistic move came with a hefty price tag and more carnage at the cable network: a 15-percent reduction of BET's existing workforce. Not CBS' head count, mind you.

The integration — and I use that word deliberately here — of BET's assets into the Viacom media machine has been a challenging and messy ordeal so far. There's been some roadkill already.

Tavis Smiley, host of the award winning and popular BET Tonight, got the boot in March. A month later, Curtis Symonds, BET's head of affiliate marketing and sales, announced his sudden departure. And that's not to mention those about to receive their walking papers, whom we don't even know about yet.

In January, shortly after the deal was announced, the African-American community spoke out about its very real fears of what would happen to the once black-owned business, now part of Viacom, the media titan that owns CBS, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures Corp. and UPN.

Their voices, if you're interested, can be heard on the Internet. In January, media-alliance.org writer Yemi Toure penned a powerful piece about the potential dangers of this deal. Back then, that author predicted that other cable programmers trying to compete in BET's space would be shut out because Viacom would now have an "economic vise" on the black community.

Indeed, that is happening. Look at what just took place at BET challenger New Urban Entertainment TV (NUE-TV), which just last month basically let most of its staff go — leaving the playing field wide open for a now Viacom-owned BET.

Toure charged that "white companies are eyeing the growing Black economy, but many can't figure out how to take control of it by themselves. So they hunt for Black fronts to do it for them."

Toure also predicted that while BET chairman and founder Bob Johnson and president Debra Lee got cushy five-year contracts, the future of BET's 500 other employees would be put at risk.

And indeed that prediction came true. Last week, Lee acknowledged that there would be another round of layoffs, to the tune of 15 percent of BET's staff. That comes on top of an earlier round of cutbacks in March, during which 50 BET employees got their pink slips.

Interestingly, Toure was no fan of BET's programming under Johnson's ownership, saying that the network pushed "the predominant image of Black males as thugs who only care about heartless sex and Rolex watches, and the predominant image of Black females as brainless, and best known for shaking their behinds."

Toure — and remember, this was written back in January — predicted that "CBS News might feed a news segment or two of BET to boost its news operation."

That's pretty prescient, given the turn of events at BET last week. In that same piece, Toure wondered what would happened to the popular host of BET Tonight, Tavis Smiley. Viacom showed him the door later in March, when he wrote on blackvoices.com about how the new owners treated him. Check it out. It's eye-opening.

"After five years of hosting the signature talk show on the network, could not one person have picked up the phone to call me personally, instead of choosing to fax a four-sentence memo to my representative? Five years, four sentences," he wrote.

Clearly these are bumpy times for Viacom and BET. You have to hope that Viacom is savvy enough to listen to the disenfranchised voices in the African-American community. It's also a major wake-up call about the perils of media concentration.

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