Black History Month in 2021 has looked different from previous years, understandably. With COVID-19 still forcing millions of Americans to stay home, TV networks are airing special themed programming so viewers can continue to learn about Black History and celebrate Black achievement while social distancing.
Notably, on February 21, Black Entertainment Television (known as BET) began airing two ground-breaking unscripted series for Black History Month: “Boiling Point,” which explores Black America’s long-standing struggle for racial justice and equality, and “Disrupt & Dismantle,” an investigative series that addresses the injustices still affecting Black communities across America today. Both series are part of the network’s social impact initiative: “Content for Change.” The initiative seeks to show how media plays a pivotal role in shaping and driving individuals’ and communities’ values, perceptions and actions — and further the principle that representation matters.
“For forty years, BET has been a unifying space for Black people to be seen, heard, showcased and celebrated. As many in America move more boldly and with a greater sense of urgency to address racial inequities, we will utilize the full breadth of our capabilities and partnerships to help drive this critical change,” said BET President Scott Mills, when “Content for Change” symbolically launched on Juneteenth 2020 — a day that traditionally marks the ending of slavery in the United States.
As part of the initiative, BET has dedicated $25 million to support the creation, distribution, marketing and promotion of content that will help “drive the critical changes needed to eliminate systemic racism and inequality in America” and significantly expanded its partnerships with BET social justice organizations to drive change for Black Americans.
“We’re a content company,” Janine Liburd, chief social impact and communications officer for BET Networks, told an audience at a Porter Novelli event last year. “We sought the best way to use our superpowers for good, so we started creating content to try and shift majority bias. We invested a lot in research to discover what we could do to counteract racism in our content beyond positive images and the like that we have all seen.”
BET’s Black History Month 2021 specials surely leverage the “superpower” that Liburd mentions. In addition, both series focus on five issues that are central to the “Content for Change” mission: racial justice, economic empowerment, education, health and civic participation.
For “Boiling Point,” BET executive producer Jason Samuels teamed up with CBS News to offer viewers original interviews and never-before-seen footage of pivotal moments in the fight for Civil Rights. Each hour-long episode in the six-part docuseries taps the CBS News archives to shed light on events including the LA Riots, Bloody Sunday, Hurricane Katrina, and the more recent killing of George Floyd. According to BET, the series “seeks to connect racism’s through line in U.S. history to understand if Americans have come to an overdue awakening on systemic racism.”
Second, for “Disrupt & Dismantle,” BET partnered with Soledad O’Brien, Emmy Award-winning journalist and philanthropist, to explore the many injustices affecting Black communities across the United States today. Each episode follows O’Brien as she confronts issues ranging from police brutality, to the prison pipeline, to infant mortality — first with Black Americans in their communities, and then in the field as she works to identify solutions with activists, politicians and other thought leaders. In the first episode, O’Brien traveled to Dallas, Texas to uncover environmental racism in the city’s Southern Sector.
These “Content for Change” Black History Month specials not only shed light on Black stories and struggles, but also rally the voices of Black creators. “Every part of the company was invested in this, but many quickly realized they didn’t have the optimal team members to produce the content that could lead to change.” said Liburd, “As such, numerous pros of color were elevated to work more closely on this.”
While February may be a special time to draw attention to Black History and Black achievement, TV networks like BET celebrate Black excellence all of the time. In fact, many cable industry initiatives support social justice for the Black community all year long. And, as the country continues to confront systemic racism, initiatives like “Content for Change” will continue to play a momentous role.