In the last few years, BET has made a play for the scripted content space. Debra Lee, BET’s Chairman and CEO, said it was one of her main goals when she took the reins a decade ago.
“Our audience wants more scripted programming, and when I took over as CEO ten years ago, that was my first promise, that we would get into the original programming arena,” Lee told EBONY.
The move has paid off. The network’s acquisition of Mara Brock Akil’s The Game back in 2011 garnered BET 7.7 million viewers for its premiere, the largest audience for a cable series, and recently the network’s three-part miniseries The New Edition Story brought in 29 million total viewers during its premiere week. And with other popular projects like Being Mary Jane, Madiba, and John Singleton’s Rebel on its roster, BET has made itself a major player in the original content realm.
It’s latest series, The Quad, which is set on a fictional HBCU campus, has already garnered good reviews. The drama deals with issues like bullying, hazing, power struggles, and school pride at Georgia A&M. While the show has found an audience who tweets along with every twist and turn each week, others, namely Hampton University president William R. Harvey found it objectionable.
Just after the show premiered, Harvey sent Lee a scathing letter criticizing the show. He called it “a sad, derisive and degenerating story,” and “an incredibly disparaging depiction of the HBCUs I know and love.”
Harvey continued: “Devoid of any reference to academics, The Quad is about a president who is promiscuous, trustees who are unwilling to deal with a rogue band director, and a band director who condones criminal activity on the part of his drum major. The Quad will lead many to believe that HBCUs exist because of their marching bands; that our presidents are unethical; that our boards are dysfunctional and have misplaced priorities; that our faculty, students and administrators are driven by sex, alcohol, marijuana, low self-esteem, parties and a preoccupation with music; that it is acceptable to disrespect women; that university policy can be set by a band director; and that there are no standards of conduct or penalties for bad behavior. This depiction seems more analogous to a disgruntled, adolescent and unrealistic point of view that some may have. It also feeds a false narrative about the irrelevance of HBCUs.”
EBONY caught up with Lee at BET Presents The American Black Film Festival Honors to get her thoughts on Harvey’s criticism.
“I talked to Dr. Harvey the other day and we had a good conversation. He started off by saying conversation is key, and I listened to him and he listened to me. I respect his opinion,” Lee said. “My point that I emphasized was that this was a fictional story. It’s not representing any particular college. Fictional TV has drama, you have good guys and bad guys. We had a good conversation and I hope students, administrators and parents will take the issues that we’re dealing with on The Quad seriously and discuss them during and after the show, because we are dealing with serious issues that happen on all campuses, not just HBCUs.”
The show’s star, Anika Noni Rose also addressed the show’s critics.
“I think what’s important when we’re referencing that letter is that this is someone who saw one episode and made a lot of opinions off of one episode,” she said. Rose, a graduate of Florida A&M University and a HBCU advocate, said though controversial at times, the issues addressed in The Quad are rooted in the truth.
“The show is a fiction, but the show is a fiction based in fact. A lot of the things that we are dealing with and talking about are taken straight from the headlines of what has happened at schools,” she explained. “So to pretend that these things don’t happen is ridiculous.”
“It’s a drama, it’s not a comedy, so things are going to be larger than life. Things are going to be drawn out in a very different way, and perhaps the show is not for that person. But let’s be clear it is not a documentary,” Rose said.
Though The Quad is a typical drama, full of imperfect characters, it’s hard to imagine predominately white institutions getting upset about a fictional series set on a university campus. While we’ve charged Black filmmakers to create complex, high-quality work, many also slam them when a project shows Black folks in a not-so-flattering light. For Rose, it’s unfair.
“Our shows have to be more positive, more respectable, more high-end that anything else that is seen,” she told EBONY. “I understand what that’s from. It’s because we aren’t seen enough, so we don’t have enough sides of us [shown] to sometimes feel comfortable. But if we’re going to show humanity and human behavior, we cannot only show the glossy parts. We cannot only show the PhD, full family, living on a hill with a fence. We can’t only show that because that’s not all of reality, that’s not all of humanity, and it’s dishonest to show that one side.”
Rose continued: “It’s really important to be clear that we are showing human life. Women do run institutions, women do have sex, hazing does happen at schools—all schools, not just HBCUs—people do affairs, it happens. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
To the Quad’s critics who have a problem with the show, the actress has some simple advice: “If it’s not for you, turn the station.”
The Quad airs Wednesday nights at 10 pm on BET.