Sunday, July 18, 1999

BET channels minority talent


Movies, new shows counter net works

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — While the major networks ignore minority stars this fall, Black Entertainment Television has stepped in to change the TV picture.

        BET's largest commitment to original programming in 20 years will yield two new franchises for the channel reaching 57 million homes:

        • A nightly prime-time talk-variety show, BET Live from LA, filling a void since the cancellation of syndicated programs hosted by Magic Johnson, Sinbad, Arsenio Hall and Keenen Ivory Wayans.

        • BET Arabesque Films, 10 made-for-TV romance and action movies based on Arabesque novels, starring Holly Robinson Peete, Phil Morris, Vanessa Williams, Ron Glass and other African-Americans.

        “We're all very proud . . . to have these opportunities,” says Mr. Morris, star of UPN's Love Boat: The Next Wave, at the Television Critics Association's annual summer press tour.

        “We hope the networks follow suit,” says the son of former Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris.

        If they don't, they could face a lawsuit. The NAACP last week threatened legal action against ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC because of their lack of leading minority stars in their new fall series.

        “This glaring omission is an outrage and a shameful display by network executives who are either clueless, careless or both,” said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume at the organization's annual convention in New York.

        BET President Debra Lee acknowledges that the networks' lack of diversity “does provide us a window of opportunity,” but that still doesn't rectify the bigger problem.

        “We think the networks should be held accountable for not showing the diversity in this country today,” she says.

        Ms. Peete and actor Khalil Kain praised BET for providing positive, passionate roles for minorities.

        “I've been wanting to break into movies of the week for a long time, romantic leads that I've seen a lot of my white counterparts get,” says Ms. Peete, one of the few African-Americans on a fall series, WB's For Your Love sitcom.

        “I don't know if I've seen 10 movies in the 13 years I've been doing this with these kinds of themes . . . Hopefully people will follow this lead,” she says.

        Mr. Kain says he accepted less money than usual to star in BET's Intimate Betrayal romantic thriller because he was playing a computer software owner. Often he's offered roles as “thugs, hoodlums (or) criminals,” he says.

        “I got to play something that was important to my community to see on the screen,” he says. @subhed:New forum @body:

        When it's time to promote the film, the stars will have a new forum: BET Live from LA, with comedian Cedric the Entertainer, and Planet Groove host Rachel Stuart.

        BET promises “funk, funk and more funk!” from the best hip-hop and R&B entertainers, plus interviews with African-American movie and TV stars.

        Cedric the Entertainer, BET's original Comicview host in 1994, says he isn't concerned about the recent talk show failures by Sinbad, Magic, Arsenio and Keenen.

        “We can be African-American without trying to basically put a black face on a white show, which is what I felt those other shows were,” he says.

        BET Live from LA, to be taped early evenings, will provide exposure to music and movie personalities not seen on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno or The Late Show with David Letterman.

        “If you're not a mega-star, you're not going to be on Jay Leno or Letterman, but that doesn't mean you're not worthy to be seen,” says Cedric, who co-stars on WB's Steve Harvey Show sitcom.

"Historic' expansion
        BET Chairman Robert Johnson declared the channel's programming expansion “historic,” saying it was the first time a company owned and managed by African-Americans had created and distributed programs “to an African-American population that has historically — and continuing to this day — been under-served by the major telecommunications media in this country.”

        According to Mr. Johnson, racism has kept BET from launching an aggressive slate of original programming for the past two decades.

        “We have the lowest (subscriber) fees . . . and we've got the lowest ad rates of any network that's 20 years old, and that's simply because of the nature of the discrimination in this country against minority businesses. There's no secret about it,” he says.

        While the NAACP talks about suing the networks, Mr. Johnson says the federal government simply should get tough renewing licenses of local stations carrying network lineups with little minority representation.

        “Every broadcast station in America has a federal license requiring them to serve the public interest,” he says. “And when they don't do . . . information and entertainment that serves the entire public, they are failing their public mandate.”

        The trouble isn't in your set. Or at BET.

        “The failures are (with) those networks, and those stations, that have had free government licenses for over 60 years. That's where the issue is,” Mr. Johnson says.

        “It's their problem. It's their challenge,” he says. “We basically ignore the networks, and we're going to do what we do best.”

        Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the TV critics summer press tour this month.