Feet tucked under a glass coffee table adorned with African art, Byron Phillips marvels at the criticism that keeps coming at his employer, Black Entertainment Television.
As executive vice president of entertainment for the cable channel, Phillips has helped entertainment president and renowned director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang, House Party) develop the most ambitious lineup of original programming in BET's 27-year history.
But BET can't catch a break from critics, and Phillips can't help but chuckle at the contradictions.
His short list:
- BET employs more black journalists than most TV outlets, but has received a Thumbs Down award from the National Association of Black Journalists for skimping on live coverage of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King's funeral last year. The channel this year also scored three nominations for journalism awards in NABJ's Salute to Excellence contest.
- It is one of the biggest employers of black people in the entertainment industry, but still takes hits from advocates for more diversity in media.
- And now, on the cusp of its greatest programming triumph, BET faces controversy over Hot Ghetto Mess, a show few people have actually seen.
Based on a Web site that tries to shame people who reflect the worst in black culture - highlighting pictures of clueless folks decked out in gaudy, overly revealing or outlandish hip-hop-inspired clothing, for instance - Hot Ghetto Mess has raised concern that BET is rolling out its own embarrassing stereotypes to build a hit show.
Protests over the show, led by a 31-year-old lawyer in Austin, Texas, prompted advertisers such as State Farm Insurance to pull ads from BET's Web site to avoid any possible connection. On Monday, the channel announced the show's name would change to We Got to Do Better.
"On Friday a third party called me and said that BET was reeling and didn't know what to do," wrote Gina McCauley, who led the protest from her blog Whataboutourdaughters.blogspot.com, in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "I suggested that they either release the show directly to DVD or they could change the name."
But, days before that decision, Phillips remained stung by criticism from McCauley, who has not spoken with BET.
"The irony of all this is that the people who are criticizing us for putting this on, are criticizing a show that is criticizing many of the things they also find wrong in our culture," Phillips said. "It's an irony of ironies."
On orders from top executives, few outlets other than the Los Angeles Times and CNN have seen a preview episode of We Got to Do Better. And though cynics wonder whether BET is using the controversy to build interest - if the show's so benign, wouldn't giving critics a look defuse the controversy? - Phillips insisted last week it still wasn't complete.
The final irony: BET's toughest obstacle in redefining itself may be the channel's own complicated history of cheap programming and corner-cutting.
Beyond music videos
BET's Los Angeles office is the hub of entertainment programming for the Washington D.C.-based channel. Staffers have been in this space since January, filling a sleek, 35,000-square-foot headquarters that reflects the channel's ambitious growth agenda.
Over the next year, Phillips said, BET expects to debut about 20 new series - challenging the channel's perception as a haven mostly for music video shows and stand-up comedy specials.
The new surroundings are a far cry from the years when BET employees told of producers borrowing money from executives to finish shows or rushing to cash paychecks before they bounced.
"You take any business which started as one man's vision, and there's bound to be all kinds of stories about how he had to maneuver," said Darrell Walker, BET's executive vice president of business affairs, referencing founder Bob Johnson. Johnson's candor about the channel's need to air cheap programming to make money was legendary; he eventually sold BET to Viacom for $3.3-billion in 2001.
Walker, a former Rhodes Scholar and film studio executive, is among the array of new faces Hudlin recruited to rebuild the channel's programming. Denys Cowan, head of the channel's animation department, is a renowned comic book artist (Superman, Batman) who also created the TV cartoon Static Shock. Brett King, in his job as head of scripted programming just three weeks, helped producer Quincy Jones develop VIBE magazine and produced the TV commercial parodies on Saturday Night Live.
King hopes to have BET's first scripted series on the air by the end of 2008. First up: Wifey, developed with VH1, about a widow who takes over her husband's hip-hop empire when the mogul unexpectedly dies, and Somebodies, a comedy about a group of friends in Atlanta based on the Sundance film.
Keeping it real
But the first evidence of BET's change has come in the cheapest, quickest programming: reality TV.
This month, the channel debuted Baldwin Hills, a reality show about upper middle class teens in a tony section of Los Angeles, and Hell Date, a Punk'd-style dating show. (What no one at the channel could tell me: why a black dwarf comes out dressed as Satan to tell the subject they are on a Hell Date.)
Yet to come: an animated sketch comedy show from Orlando Jones, an American Idol-meets-gospel talent contest called Sunday Best, and a multi-episode special on a sprawling town hall meeting held by BET called Hip Hop vs. America.
Most of the shows are aimed at BET's target audience - viewers ages 18 to 34 who are avid consumers of black culture, regardless of their race. The programming also seems a pointed rejoinder to competitors that have lured black viewers with shows such as VH1's over-the-top dating series I Love New York and Flavor of Love.
But do BET's offerings have to include We Got to Do Better, or news reports shorter than some commercials? Phillips says yes, that BET's young audience consumes information and entertainment differently from their elders.
"Everybody thinks and wants BET to be all things to all people . . . (because) there is such a hunger in the marketplace for quality black programming," he said. "We might not always love the way it's expressed, but we know why it's being expressed: because there's so much diversity out there (among black people), but we don't see it on TV. And we're going to change that."
See live reports, podcasts and more from Eric Deggans' Los Angeles trip on the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
We Got to Do Better
The show debuts at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday on BET.