'HGM' has critics questioning BET's vision

A new series on BET, Hot Ghetto Mess (HGM), has yet to hit airwaves, but it already has triggered controversy and protests in the African-American community and beyond.

A new series on BET, Hot Ghetto Mess (HGM), has yet to hit airwaves, but it already has triggered controversy and protests in the African-American community and beyond.

And that may not be too far from its creator's intent.

Based on a Web site and DVD by attorney-producer Jam Donaldson, the show is meant to "spark dialogue, debate, and change within the black community," according to BET. To do so, it relies on audience-provided snapshots and videos of mostly black Americans captured at their not-so ghetto fabulous, interspersed with "we got to do better"-type commentary by HGM's host, comedian Charlie Murphy.

Critics, however - and there are plenty of them, though both the Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are conspicuously missing - claim that HGM only reinforces racial stereotypes, especially among viewers outside the target demographic.

"At the core, the problem with [the show] is that it uses a tool of mass media to dehumanize African-American people," says Gina McCauley, an Austin, TX-based attorney whose What About Our Daughters blog draws attention to the negative portrayals of black women in popular culture.

What's more, McCauley notes, BET has a recent history of poor decision making when it comes to racial, gender, and class stereotyping in its programming. Even if it has better intentions with HGM, "all these stereotypes that you're now suddenly trying to combat, you helped to create," she says.

While McCauley isn't encouraging her site's readers to boycott BET, she's letting advertisers know that the show may not be the place to invest their marketing dollars.
"The lesson of [Don] Imus is that advertisers make the determination of what gets on air," she says.

And advertisers are getting the message: Both Home Depot and State Farm Insurance pulled spots from HGM when media coverage of the controversy began to heat up last week. In a statement, the latter said it had "reviewed the content of the program, which we just heard about, and we will not be airing any State Farm advertising during the program on BET."

But at the annual Television Critics Association meeting on July 15, BET entertainment president Reginald Hudlin said few people outside of the network had seen the show - including advertisers - and called the claims "erroneous presumption[s] based on absolutely zero information."

Likening HGM to The Daily Show and the film Dr. Strangelove, Hudlin called the series "pure social commentary," meant to generate discussion and inspire change within the black community.

"At the end of the day, the most responsible thing we can do is create a dialogue" and be part of the solution, Hudlin later told the AP.

If that is the goal of HGM, it's already been achieved: Thoughtful, open discussions about the value of the series are under way on social networks across the country.

BET's communications department declined to discuss additional information, referring requests for comment to public statements.

Still, as a Viacom-owned TV network, BET would like viewers to watch HGM's July 25 premiere.

"BET is facing sort of a simmering frustration [among viewers] with a lot of the decisions it's made with its programming," says Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times TV and media critic, and chair of the National Association of Black Journalists media monitoring committee. "[If it were] a channel with a better track record, [viewers and media] wouldn't be so skeptical."

Now, though, Deggans says, BET claims to have a new vision for itself, one that portrays African Americans in a different light.

"Is it going to be something people will find contributes to how they treat the image of African Americans, or something people feel is damaging?" he asks. "That remains up in the air... I think it's important to wait until you actually see the show before you start protesting."

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