(The Root) — Over the years, BET has faced a generous amount of criticism for not having enough uplifting and informative programming. Only recently, network co-founder Sheila Johnson said that it had “squandered” an outlet that “really could have been the voice of black America,” and that black people are losing their voice as a result. But how much do black Americans really care about having a voice?
That’s a question being posed on more than one level by BET as the network faces disappointing ratings for its late-night vehicle for news veteran T.J. Holmes and it unveils a two-part news documentary about how black people will sound off at the polls in the upcoming presidential election. The latter show, titled Second Coming? Will Black America Decide 2012?, examines the issues that black voters are grappling with as Nov. 6 approaches.
Created in partnership with Brick City producers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin and filmmaker Sam Pollard (Slavery by Another Name, Four Little Girls), the documentary follows a number of Obama surrogates, from celebrities such as Kerry Washington and Usher to grassroots organizers in battleground states, as they go through the 2012 election cycle. Joblessness, the endless cycle of violence in urban communities and gay marriage are among the topics tackled during the program. It is narrated by actress S. Epatha Merkerson.
At a screening in New York City for Part 1 of Second Coming, BET’s president, Debra Lee, said that she hoped people would tune in and then turn up at the polls. When an audience member asked if the network would consider airing that kind of programming on a weekly basis, Lee replied, “Over the 28 years I’ve been at BET, we’ve tried different shows, series and nightly news, and it’s always a matter of what are people going to show up to watch. We started a new show last week called Don’t Sleep! With T.J. Holmes, which is supposed to address these kinds of issues. It’s designed to be a mix of entertainment and news and commentary. We hoped it would have been a Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert-type show.”
However, Lee added, “To be honest, the ratings haven’t been great in the past two weeks.” (Information was not available on the exact metrics to which she was referring, though a network representative later provided this statement via email: “BET’s new late-night talk show Don’t Sleep is now cable’s No. 1 late-night talk show/variety program among black viewers this year.”)
Holmes’ strong reputation as a journalist at CNN hasn’t yet translated into a large viewership. “Our audience always says they want this kind of programming, but they don’t show up,” Lee said. She hopes they will show up for Second Coming, which airs in two parts on successive Fridays, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.
Will they? At its heart, Second Coming is the type of news documentary that would attract a relatively mature audience, as most news programming tends to, but Pollard hopes that the inclusion of celebrities in the documentary will help draw young viewers. “If young people, who are BET’s core audience, see those hip rappers out there saying “Vote, vote” — people like Ice Cube and RZA — it can be a big plus in the next two weeks [before the presidential election],” he told The Root.
Pollard made no bones about the fact that his aim was to convince black people to come out and vote for Barack Obama, an assertion that BET’s vice president of news, David Scott, later qualified by stressing that the network is “strictly nonpartisan.” To achieve a second Obama term, Pollard said, “It’s going to take grassroots activists like the people in our show, Tarsha Williams and Charles Perry. It’s going to take people like that who are on the ground. We’re going to have to motivate and energize people to get out and vote for Obama.
“I also think that if black people will tune in on this next debate and Obama can raise his game even higher than he did [Tuesday night], that will be a big plus to energize black people to get out and vote,” Pollard added. “The way he’ll get the bump is if black people come out, if they really support him again the way that we did in 2008.”