Black Entertainment Television has received
less-than-flattering publicity in recent weeks, courtesy of a syndicated Sunday comic
strip called The Boondocks. And the strips have added fuel other to media
accusations that the network is more concerned with the bottom line than with serving
African-American audiences and business partners.
In the Oct. 24 strip, Boondocks character Huey complains
that BET shows too many infomercials and televangelists on Sundays. Two weeks later, Huey
was at it again, saying BET "shot holes" in his economic philosophy of black
The comic strips were published on the heels of an Oct. 25 Newsweek
article titled "Bad Vibes at Cable's BET," which called attention to
demands for BET to pay better wages to comedians who perform on the network's Comic
Boondocks cartoonist Aaron McGruder said the BET storyline
in his comic strips came "from BET" and not the Newsweek article, which
said he had not read by mid-November. McGruder draws his comic strips a month in advance
of publication, so he could not have gotten the idea from the article, he added.
McGruder, whose comic strip began in national syndication
earlier this year, said he knows several people who work for BET. Some of them were happy
with the comic strip because they're frustrated with the way the company is run, he
"The vast majority of people working there are doing
the best they can with absolutely no resources and very little money," McGruder said.
Michael Lewellen, vice president of corporate
communications for BET, declined to comment directly on McGruder's comic strips or to
address his statements to Multichannel News. McGruder's complaints were also
aired in last Monday's Washington Post Style section.
"I don't see the value in us exchanging barbs, as
a multibillion dollar corporation, with a cartoonist," Lewellen said.
But Lewellen, who started with BET earlier this month,
defended the network.
"For a long time I've been a fan of BET, and now
I'm excited to be an employee," he said.
Lewellen called the Boondocks strips "amusing, but
clearly misinformed," and urged McGruder to take a broader look at BET's
programming, which includes public-affairs and teen-oriented programming, as well as
movies and talk shows. The network has also announced its largest investment in original
programming to date.
George Yelder, vice president of marketing and advertising
sales for Time Warner Cable's Indianapolis division, said he sees the comic strips
not as a negative, but as an honor for BET and the industry.
"The fact that BET is around and able to be shot at is
testimony to the strength of the brand," Yelder said. He added that while some
subscribers complain about the number of infomercials, the system also hears about the
good things that the network has done with shows like BET Tonight and Rap City.
At a recent promotional campaign tied to a local black
college football game, for example, BET's Rap City T-shirts were a hot property,
While BET is doing a better job of supporting its
affiliates than it has in the past, Yelder said he'd like to see the network hold
more workshops on how to sell advertising and teach potential clients "that African
American culture is part of American culture."
Yelder doesn't begrudge BET's making a profit.
"If they're not doing well financially, they don't survive, and there's a void
again," he said.
One industry executive who asked not to be named said that
while plenty of networks run infomercials, they have a more severe impact on BET's
since it is currently the only cable network geared toward just African Americans.
"BET carries a lot on its back," the executive
said. "It's a little unfair to them. If there are 33 million African Americans,
there shouldn't be just one channel targeted to that group."
Freeing up channel space for new networks geared to the
audience should help.
"The basis of the American economy is
competition," the executive said, "and if cable provided competition to BET, BET
would get better and cable would get better."
McGruder said that he doesn't hold out any hopes that
BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson will improve the network.
"Bob Johnson needs to sell BET," McGruder said.
"I don't see anything good happening to it while Bob Johnson's running
With all his jibes at BET, McGruder has appeared on the
network more than once, most recently earlier this month as a guest on a show hosted by
McGruder, who soon hopes to bring a video version of The
Boondocks to television, said he would not take the show to BET because he
doesn't trust the network to spend the money needed to give it high-production value.
"I know they wouldn't be willing to pay half a
million dollars for a half-hour episode," he said.
Lewellen said BET would entertain any idea for new
programming, including a TV show based on The Boondocks, if it has the potential to
appeal to BET's audience.
"If [McGruder] has made a conscious decision not to
bring his programming to us, that's his right," Lewellen said.
McGruder would not rule out signing a deal with a network
that is aimed at a wider audience. He would not comment on which networks he is in
In the meantime, McGruder said he plans to continue his BET
storyline in his comic strips, although he couldn't say when the next one might
"BET has the potential to positively impact black
America and all America in general," McGruder said. "To waste that on
infomercials and televangelists there's no excuse for that."
Lewellen said that criticisms such those levied by McGruder
go with the territory any time a company is a leader in a category or the sole company in
"BET created a genre in entertainment that didn't
exist before that, a genre dedicated to black audiences," Lewellen said.
Countered McGruder: "The worst thing about BET is it
is taking up space and preventing another black station from coming along and doing it
"It's bad enough to be exploited by white people, but
it's worse when it's done by a black company," he said. "We should be
holding BET to a higher standard."