Bad Vibes At Cable's Bet

The week the hit film "Three Kings" opened, three of its stars--George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube--made the talk-show rounds. Clooney did Leno, Wahlberg did Letterman and Ice Cube did "Live From LA"--a new show on cable's Black Entertainment Television. Cube, the rapper and actor, decided to make the black-owned network his first stop because it's the sole place on the dial where African-Americans can see "us and only us," he says. "We need that because we don't get it anywhere else.''

At a time when blacks and others are decrying poor minority representation on mainstream TV, BET offers an alternative. For nearly two decades, it's been the only network exclusively aimed at black America. Founded and owned by former congressional press secretary Robert Johnson, 53, BET has grown from a fledgling netlet into an empire valued at $1.5 billion that reaches 90 percent of black cable households. But despite the lack of color elsewhere on TV, BET's viewers and employees have become increasingly inclined to scrutinize the network--and to dislike what they see. Many say they're turned off by what they consider outmoded, even offensive, programming, while current and former employees charge that the network takes advantage of its position as "the only game in town" to push black talent into unfavorable contracts and low-paying gigs.

Last month more than 100 comedians, including Richard Pryor, Tim Allen and Jay Leno, signed and published a full-page ad in Variety demanding that BET offer better wages to comics who perform on the top-rated show "Comic View.'' For the past seven years, critics say, the nonunion network has paid its comedians a miserly $150 appearance fee. A fair wage, according to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is $500. (HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" pays comedians between $500 and $800.) After AFTRA urged comedians not to work on the Los Angeles-based show, BET moved production to Atlanta, where less experienced comics are more likely to accept low pay. Johnson acknowledges moving the show as a result of the fracas. "Obviously we will take our production to where the people are that want to work with us," he says. "That's just business."

But the ad in Variety was only the first public airing of what has been a long-simmering contretemps. Comic George Wallace says black performers have been loath to criticize Johnson openly. "We tried everything to make him understand that BET is a multimillion-dollar company now and it can't fall back on what it did when it was first starting,'' he says. D. L. Hughley, star of the ABC sitcom "The Hughleys'' and former host of "Comic View," agrees that the time to pull punches is over. "If a mainstream company were treating black people the way BET has and is, it would've been a big mess long before now,'' he says. "Because it's black people mistreating black people, everyone's been hesitant to speak up. But wrong is wrong.''

Hughley and other current and former employees charge that they were discouraged from bringing lawyers to contract negotiations. "They were clear that nothing would happen if I brought one," says Hughley, who got back pay and residuals from the network through a lawsuit last year. "They know there's nowhere else for blacks to go.'' (BET wouldn't comment on claims it urges talent to avoid attorneys.) MTV veejay Ananda Lewis used to host the BET talk show "Teen Summit,'' but when MTV came knocking, she reluctantly jumped. "I really wanted to work for my people,'' says Lewis, who reportedly earned $30,000 annually at BET. "I didn't want to leave. But when you're not getting paid and you don't have creative input, what's the point?"

Johnson, a no-nonsense businessman who's been called "the black Ted Turner," argues that black talent must labor under a different economic reality. Under his calculus, accepting low pay individually will lead to greater rewards for black performers collectively. "Black talent compares itself to white talent,'' he says. "But that's the wrong comparison because the advertising and support isn't there for African-Americans to make that type of money. I'm trying to bring a different economic paradigm to Hollywood, one that produces a product for much less. That way there can be more opportunities for everyone.'' Johnson also dismisses the Variety ad. "I'm not seeing a lot of black comics on 'The Tonight Show','' he says. "If those same groups of white people signed petitions to NBC and other networks demanding more blacks be put on the air, then we could talk.''

But most of BET's critics are blacks who'd like to see the network live up to its promise. "Some of the shows are just plain coonery," says DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who writes frequently on racial issues. "It's like being assaulted by friendly fire." "Live From LA" is only a month old, but already it has alienated viewers and potential guests alike with its propensity for offensive skits. Sketches such as "Bitch, Please,'' which pilloried women who alleged they'd been raped by black celebrities, and "Pimps and Ho's,'' with a title that speaks for itself, so offended actress Pam Grier that she tried to back out of an appearance. And while cable outlets like USA and MTV have improved their programming lineups--and HBO, in particular, has turned out terrific fare with African-American appeal--BET still allots much of its air time to subpar music videos and infomercials. "We've heard the critcism," responds Johnson. "We are dealing with new programming that addresses our audience's concerns." But again, Johnson argues that the money is hard to come by. However, financial analysts at Dun & Bradstreet estimate that BET will net about $85 million this year.

The network has made some moves to bolster its offerings. It has started an original film division that aims to cast young Hollywood's black standouts. And it has hired Steven Hill, former head of music programming at MTV, to revamp its music shows. "BET will no longer be a dumping ground for anybody who wants to get on," Hill promises. Perhaps BET's most widely respected show is "BET Tonight With Tavis Smiley," a Larry King-style program that's attracted the likes of Cosby, Castro and Clinton. But even Smiley, BET's best-paid star and most visible personality, has concerns. "It gets very frustrating to be asked by young black people how I can work for a company with no social consciousness," says Smiley. "I get that wherever I go, and it's something I can't answer.'' Johnson thinks he has an answer. "We get criticized so much because of the lack of opportunities for blacks out there,'' he says. "We are expected to be all things to all people, and that's not possible." Surely not. But what BET could offer, critics say, is a little bit more respect for blacks on both sides of the screen.