With a former programming emphasis on music videos and a record of little or no serious commitment to news, questions have regularly been raised whether Black Entertainment Television was serving its audience or exploiting it. The paucity of serious news and first-rate public affairs programs was impossible not to notice. The National Association of Black Journalists gave BET its "Thumbs Down Award" in 2007.
But it looks as if things might be starting to change for the better at the African-American-themed cable channel, and one of the first glimmers of what could be a newsier and more socially responsible future for BET arrives Sunday night with "Michelle Obama on a Mission: Impact Africa," a documentary produced by Baltimore's James Blue. The report of the first lady's trip airs at 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday along with another new BET documentary, "Alpha Man: The Brotherhood of MLK," at 7 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Both are 30 minutes long.
"This is my debut on BET, and let's just be really honest, there are very few places where you can do serious foreign reporting," Blue said in an interview last week. "And if BET wants to create a platform in subject areas that it thinks its audience will be interested in to do that kind of reporting, I'm on board."
Getting journalists like Blue on board is an important first step if BET wants to be considered a serious and credible provider of news and information for its viewers. The 42-year-old Princeton graduate worked for 14 years as a producer at NBC and ABC News, most notably with Ted Koppel's "Nightline." His work has earned eight national Emmy Awards, two Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Awards, two George Foster Peabody Awards and two Overseas Press Club Awards.
After leaving ABC News to work with Koppel at the Discovery Channel, Blue has gone on to found Public Affairs Media Group, a media production company with offices in Washington, Baltimore, London, Kabul and New York. Its roster is a who's who of some of the best producers and technical staff in TV and documentaries.
David Scott, president of BET News, says his operation is moving toward a "news and docs model in which we try and bring to air quality, distinctive programming that's consistent with our identity in niche cable." And working with the likes of Blue is part of that.
"We want to work with the best people in the business," says Scott, who was also a producer at ABC News. "I've known James Blue from when we worked at ABC News for a long time, and he is the kind of talent that we may not be able to have on our staff on a full-time basis, but on a project-specific basis it makes a lot of sense."
Sunday night's Michelle Obama project is better journalism that I can remember seeing on BET. For openers, Blue and his production team, led by field producer Dan Morris, successfully managed to gain access without giving away the store — they got backstage with the first lady on the trip she made to South Africa in June without letting themselves be co-opted into making a PR film or campaign ad for the Obamas. That is the deadliest trap for such projects — especially when dealing with a White House already in high campaign mode.
"These programs live and die by the access, and we were very lucky to get some really good access," Blue says. "But at the same time, we can't let the access dictate the story and the narrative. You know, we have to bring something to it. So, in every instance, we tried to figure out what were the goals that Mrs. Obama was trying to set out. She wanted to show youth empowerment and women's empowerment and whatever. So, what we did is find characters and vehicles to tell the larger story of the points that she was trying to make — separate from just making that point through the words of the first lady."
Blue's team not only humanized and personalized her journey by telling a bit of the history of some of the people whom she met, but also kept the film from being preachy.
"We spent time with the young girl in the film who introduced the first lady in Botswana," Blue says. "We spent time with a prisoner at Robben Island who was going to lead her around [as she and the film learn more about the history of Nelson Mandela]. It allowed us to use her intersection with these people as a reason to learn more about these individuals and who and what they are."
Of course, there are "messages" in the report that political friends and foes of the Obamas will tease out and try to deconstruct through their particular political prisms. I didn't find Mrs. Obama's words in the interviews and conversations she had with correspondent Lola Ogunnaike to be particularly political.
She talks in the film, for example, about her middle-class childhood in Chicago and recounts how she could never have imagined getting on a plane and going off to a place like South Africa — that was just something too far outside her realm of experience to even imagine. She says she hopes documentaries like the one about her trip will help young people understand it is possible for them.
"We hear her in a different way, talking directly to BET viewers," Scott says. "She's talking about who she wants her daughters to be as black women, talking about what it was like growing up in a middle-class black family when international travel was not as possible for her generation. … Our viewers will hear her in this piece speaking directly to them in a way that we think resonates with their lives. … We may not have the kind of full-fledged, sophisticated news-gathering infrastructure of a major news organization, but we're especially well-positioned to produce quality journalism on the issues that matter most to our audience."
Blue, a Bolton Hill resident and father of two, looks as if he could play a key role in that future. He was scheduled to produce a live program Sunday for BET from the dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King monument — before the weather caused the cancellation of the event. He will be the man in charge of BET's live coverage when the rescheduled dedication takes place.
"What is nice is that BET is creating the possibility for this kind of programming," Blue says. "And it comes from the top. … There is a sense that this public affairs-documentary genre has a real potential and has a place within what BET is trying to do now. But let's also be clear, because this is a business. BET is a successful cable network. And unlike some of the news divisions where I used to work, there is an opportunity within that success. You know, I'm surprised as anyone that I'm doing stuff for BET. But I'm loving it — and I'm having fun. And I'm learning all sorts of things."