HOLLYWOOD -- Today had been targeted as a red-letter day for BET executives. It's the day they had set aside to unveil an ambitious slate of series showcasing the cable network's move into more diverse programming aimed at a wide range of black viewers.
Those plans are still set. But on the eve of that presentation to a gathering of national TV writers, BET is grappling with an uproar over a coming series that has reawakened charges against the network of perpetuating negative black images.
State Farm Insurance and Home Depot have pulled ads from Hot Ghetto Mess, a series inspired by the Web site of the same name with pictures and videos featuring outrageous and socially incorrect behavior, mostly by blacks. Among the images on the photo-heavy site are overweight, tattooed people in revealing outfits, a dog with cornrows, babies drinking out of beer bottles and a pregnant teen wearing a prom dress with a hole cut out for her protruding stomach.
Borrowing the site's mantra, "We got to do better," the show, scheduled to premiere July 25, is designed as a humorous but stinging critique of repellent behavior and appearance. BET says few outside the network have seen the show. But based largely on the Web site and its hot-button title, the series Hot Ghetto Mess already has sparked a furor among those who feel it will glamorize racial stereotypes.
BET President Reginald Hudlin insists that Hot Ghetto Mess is being prejudged - and wrongly so. When the public does get a look at the show, they'll wonder what the controversy was all about, he said. "There's this presumption that BET has ill intent. ... Nothing could be further from the truth."
State Farm Insurance spokesman Fraser Engerman said company executives had screened the show, and "because of the nature of the programming, we felt it was an inappropriate place for our advertising to appear. We just feel that the nature of the show is inappropriate," though he declined to specify what State Farm officials found objectionable. Engerman said that the company was reacting to the content, not the protest, and that State Farm would continue to support other BET shows.
But Hudlin said that no one from State Farm has seen the series, which the network is still tweaking. He compared the series to The Daily Show, the film Dr. Strangelove and other projects that use socially conscious humor to make a serious statement - that ridiculous and irresponsible behavior by anyone, not just blacks, should be denounced.
The network for years has been the target of criticism from blacks and others who claim BET has given too much attention to raunchy music videos featuring scantily clad women and brash rappers bragging about their bling and sexual appetites.
It's precisely those images that Hudlin, a filmmaker (House Party, Boomerang), was hired to revamp when he was brought in two years ago after the resignation of BET founder Robert Johnson. Since then, the network's focus has been on developing shows that present different and more upscale aspects of black life, such as the new reality series Baldwin Hills, about the lifestyles of the teen set in that affluent Los Angeles neighborhood, and the coming Sunday Best, an American Idol-style search for "the next great gospel singer."
Still, Hudlin said that despite those new shows, BET continues to be haunted by its past: "My frustration is on the relentless focus on the negative. We show the whole range of the black experience. Don't define us by one show that you don't like."
Jam Donaldson, the creator of the Web site and an executive producer of the show, was particularly exasperated by the outcry against Hot Ghetto Mess.
"Yes, the origin of the show is the Web site, but the show is very different," she said. "These folks are just expecting a bunch of videos of ignorant black people. That's not what it's about at all. We do show clips, but we put it into context, saying, 'This is not who black people are.'"
The tone of the site is far more audacious than the premiere episode, a copy of which was screened this week by the Los Angeles Times. The premiere episode involves a fairly benign mix of crude slapstick footage in the vein of America's Funniest Home Videos and blooper shows, man-on-the-street interviews and commentary by host Charlie Murphy, a former cast member of Chappelle's Show. Some sequences feature white participants.
Murphy said the protest could be traced to "hypersensitivity and an undercurrent of phoniness" about racial humor in the wake of shock jock Don Imus' firing, Michael Richards' anti-black comedy club rant and concern over rappers' use of the N-word.
"Where are these people," he added, "when it comes to shows like Flavor of Love or Maury, when the 25th man is being tested as a baby's daddy?"
Greg Braxton writes for the Los Angeles Times.