Television: Black is beautiful, you BET

Black programming in Britain is 'all bling but no brains', but a US channel that offers intelligent TV is aiming to change that, says Amol Rajan

The view that Britain's black communities have, over the past decade or so, suffered from a growing deficit of high-quality television has become a prevailing orthodoxy. The black academic and Channel 4 documentary maker Robert Beckford voiced a widely-held view on "black programming" last year when he summed it up as "music, sport, and sexuality; rap, riot, and rape". All bling but no brains.

Stephen Bourne, the author of Black in the British Frame, a history of British television's relationship with the black community, agrees. "We often hear the charge that the only television specifically directed toward Britain's black community is low-brow nonsense, as Beckford claims. There is some truth in that," he says. "But it's actually much worse: black people have become invisible on British televisions. We're simply not tackling the issues that matter to an important minority community, and the lack of representation is depressing. There should be opportunities in broadcasting for all people".

Into this breach, Black Entertainment Television will step this week. Better known as BET and billed as the leading black media outlet in the world, the American cable network has chosen Britain as its first international venture. Having spent nearly three decades developing ties with the 87 million black viewers in the US, the company's management say the prospect of engaging with a British market was too much to resist.

BET will not be a cure-all, but those behind it recognise the demand from Britain's black community for intelligent television has never been higher. "I won't promise that we'll make everybody happy," says Michael Armstrong, the 35-year-old senior vice-president. "But given what we've achieved on this side of the Atlantic, and given the number of different interests we've satisfied, I see no reason why we can't do the same across the pond."

Based in Washington but broadcasting across America, BET produces shows across a gamut of genres, from reality TV and current affairs to comedy and gospel music shows. Backed by the might of Viacom, the media conglomerate, it has achieved almost unparalleled brand recognition in America since its launch in 1979.

Sitcoms from The Jamie Foxx Show to The Parkers gave BET a reputation for pioneering the advancement of black stars in America, while music programmes such as Rap City have helped propel the careers of future commercial successes including Alicia Keys, who was born a few months after BET was launched and is seen as one of its ambassadors. Hollywood stars such as Denzel Washington are keen to be seen alongside popular presenting duo Terence and Roxy in the hit music show 106 & Park.

College Hill, which follows students in some of America's historic black colleges, is credited with countering the cruder stereotypes of black culture and has just been commissioned for a sixth season. "I think it's fair to say that in America we're more than just a TV station," says Armstrong. "Across different platforms [both television and the web] we've got a real grip on the imagination of black America."

He would say that – but it's true. The annual BET Awards, for example which recognise the achievements of black artists on both sides of the Atlantic, have attracted huge publicity and up to 6 million viewers, sizeable for a minority community channel.

"What we want to do in Britain is to put a mirror of the British black experience in front of the black community. There's a particular sensibility, a spirit and attitude that minority communities bring to their engagement with culture," Armstrong says. "We need to reflect that, but also to help shape it, by telling people of all backgrounds that the black experience is a rich, multi-faceted... experience."

Some critics see a danger in imported American networks hindering rather than helping to cultivate original British programming, doing little more than providing even more space for established American faces. Armstrong deflects such worries.

"Big American stars are among our strongest asset, and it would be foolhardy not to brandish them. But the point is not to be dogmatic about "American" or "British" content. What we produce is high-quality black content, with different accents. In time, we'll be doing more and more casting of British talent. Last year... College Hill came to London, and Kano [the British "Grime" rapper] won one of our... awards. I'm sure BET can help black British talent flourish."

But what exactly does "black content" – or Beckford's corollary, "black programming" – mean? And is it sensible to target tastes in accordance with racial heritage? Racial profiling is a hazardous business at the best of times. Specificities among racial categories do seem to exist: according to the most recent American census, black viewers watch five hours more television than their white counterparts, one reason for BET's success.

Parallel statistics for Britain are less forthcoming, but Armstrong is confident that patterns of behaviour and viewing do divide on racial lines. The proportion of black males in Britain between 15 and 24 who watch the music-based channel MTV Base, for example, is consistently much higher than white males of the same age. And black television viewers in Britain are younger than those from other ethnic groups. BET, then, should be an advertiser's dream, another factor which should help its chances of commercial success in Britain.

"Black culture needs some space, some room to breathe and express itself," Armstrong says. "27 years of experience in America tells us that if you use television to speak to people about what matters to them, they'll repay you. Nobody has been speaking to the black community in Britain – but we can change that."

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