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Is Black Entertainment Television Taking a Disturbing Turn?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," May 25, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY HOST:  In the "Personal Story" segment tonight, Black Entertainment Television: BET.  It went on the air in 1980 with a mission, to provide Americans, especially blacks, with useful information and opinion.  But BET (search) has become quite something else.  We recently monitored the network, and this is what we saw. 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

O'REILLY:  All right.  Joining us now from Washington is Michael Lewellen, vice president of communications for BET.  And from Pittsburgh, Bev Smith who did a public affairs talk show on BET for 11 years before it was canceled. 

Ms. mith, are you surprised?  I'm sure this isn't the BET you started out with, is it?

BEV SMITH, FORMER TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, it would depend.  We had videos in the days when I was there, and I left in 1998, that were as graphic but not quite as graphic as they are now.  And we had videos on BET in those days that were graphic but didn't proliferate as they seem to be doing now.  That's all you do seem to see are scantily dressed women who a lot of African-American women are upset about in those videos.  We not only like to question the music companies that make them, but the women that star in them.  Yes, we're upset. 

O'REILLY:  Mr. Lewellen, we monitored BET last Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until 6:25 p.m. when children, of course, could access your channel.  It was wall-to-wall either soft core porn or explicit videos that just fall below that category.  What say you, sir?

MICHAEL LEWELLEN, VP OF COMMUNICATIONS, BET:  Well, Bill, I think that you are focusing, unfortunately, on a small part of BET's overall programming.  I wish you had monitored us in prime time where we show more African-American cinema than any network on television.  I wish you had monitored our nightly newscast, still the only nightly newscast in this country from an African-American perspective.  I think that you have honed in on, and you certainly have a flair for the dramatic, of just one part of BET's overall programming, which is not entirely fair. 

O'REILLY:  But 11:30 to 6:30, that's seven hours on a Saturday when children are out of school, that's what I'm interested in.  I don't care if you run this stuff all night, which you do. Come on. I mean, I know you have a newscast. I know you run movies. But seven straight hours of soft core porn on a Saturday afternoon? Come on. 

LEWELLEN:  Bill, you pulled 45 seconds out of that seven hours that you monitored... 

O'REILLY:  But I couldn't show -- but it was all -- Mr. Lewellen, I have the sheet here of every hour.  Do you want me to go down it for you?  There were no newscasts, there were no discussion shows by Ms. Smith or anybody else, there was no movie.  It was all this.  Come on. 

LEWELLEN:  It's a small part of our overall lineup, Bill, I think you have focused in and are quite frankly lacing this with your overall interpretation of these individual artists' expression.  Bear in mind...

O'REILLY:  The individual artists' expression.  All right. 

LEWELLEN:  Let's bear in mind what we're talking about, Bill.  Not all music videos promote sex and violence.  Not all the... 

O'REILLY:  All the ones you ran for seven hours on Saturday did. 

LEWELLEN:  Bill, I kind of doubt that, quite frankly.  But not all...

O'REILLY:  Ms. Smith, am I exaggerating --  wait, wait, Ms. Smith, am I exaggerating this?

LEWELLEN:  No, you're not exaggerating at all.  You know, first of all, I find myself in a difficult position, because of course, I'm grateful that Black Entertainment Television gave me an opportunity to have a show. 

But Michael, let's take the gloves off, the real deal is that is exactly what we see.  There is no equal balance in terms of the programming.  You can see a Nelly, which is the video that we ran, or we can see a Ludacris right after that.  And unfortunately, with the exception of programming in the morning that is geared toward religion, and programming on Sunday, that may be geared toward religion and jazz, there is very little programs of quality as there were 10 years ago. 

We don't have shows like "60 Minutes," we don't have shows that show the positive side of the African-American community.  So if I was in Sweden or if I was in Africa as Will Smith was recently, and saw on the side of the wall in a remote African village the words "Tupac" and the words "Biggie Smalls," but nothing about the fact that Dr. Ben Carson was a heart surgeon, I would be concerned about the image. 

And Michael, you know this has been the complaint of the African-American community and the community at large because C. Delores Tucker and former vice president's wife Tipper Gore brought these issues to the fore.  There has to be some discussion about responsibility of images in America from a media...

LEWELLEN:  Well, interestingly...

SMITH:  ... that projects itself as a voice of black America. 

O'REILLY:  All right.  Let, Mr. -- go ahead, Mr. Lewellen. 

LEWELLEN:  But, Bev, interestingly enough, the thing you do not talk about are the millions of dollars of air time that BET has devoted in public service campaigns as well as specialized programming to address the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the black community, to attack obesity in the black community.  We are spending millions of dollars in air time right now promoting voter registration and actual voting this fall.  So again, I think you have taken, and so has Bill, has taken your personal opinion of what you view as entertainment and use it to paint a very broad, stereotypical brush of the network.  And that is not all that BET shows, and I think you know that. 

SMITH:  Well, I think I don't know that.  I think I don't know that.  And I'm one who was on the inside.  Michael, let's be serious.  You had programming that sat down with top journalists, you had programming that focused on African-American men.  You had children's programming that came on Saturday morning.  You had programming from Hollywood that presented positive sides, like what Shirley Ralph (ph) and others were doing.  You had that kind of programming.  It has disappeared. 

(CROSSTALK)

SMITH:  It has disappeared, Michael. 

O'REILLY:  Let me get in, let me get in here.

SMITH:  Those are specials that you did.

O'REILLY:  Ms.Smith, let me get in here.  Is it all about money, because this is cheaper to run this video stuff?  They give it to you for free.  No doubt a lot of people like to see it.  Is it all about money, Mr. Lewellen? 

LEWELLEN:  No, Bill, it's not all about money, because if it was, then we would not invest in the news programming that we do, we would not invest in the other public affairs programming that we do.  We would not spend the time that we do raising issues of consciousness and other platforms that clearly Ms. Smith is not watching.  BET, let's not forget, is still a business.  Let's not forget that we are no different than FOX News Channel or CBS or ESPN or any other element.  Programming on the network has to be programming that individuals will watch. If they don't watch...

O'REILLY:  We got it. 

LEWELLEN:  ... then we can't...

O'REILLY:  But look out for the kids, Mr. Lewellen.  I've got to run. 

LEWELLEN:  We do, Bill.  We do.

O'REILLY:  That stuff isn't looking out for the kids. 

LEWELLEN:  That's not all we show, Bill. 

O'REILLY:  No, but Saturday from 11:30 to 6:30, that's all you showed. 

SMITH:  And every Friday (ph)...

LEWELLEN:  There are six more days, Bill. 

SMITH:  And every day.

O'REILLY:  They are home from school, Mr. Lewellen. 

All right.  We appreciate you guys coming on, thanks very much. 

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