Net-Bashing 'Boondocks' Banned
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- "Now that's a real shame when folks
be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that."
It's the memorable quote from "Better Off Dead," the 1985 comedy starring John Cusack. Change "white" to "black," and this week, it could just as easily refer to Huey Freeman, the central character of "The Boondocks."
Cartoon Network's Adult Swim has tossed away two brand new episodes of Aaron McGruder's animated series, "The Boondocks." The show (and the previous comic strip of the same name) has always delved fearlessly into black culture and politics through the lives of two young black siblings from inner-city Chicago who've moved to the suburbs with their grandfather.
'Hunger Strike': The episode of 'The Boondocks' features protagonist Huey telling CNN of his plans to go on a hunger strike until all BET executives commit suicide. BET CEO Debra Lee is reincarnated as a character named 'Debra Lee-vil.'
So maybe it was the over-the-top mocking of network executives at BET. One of the scotched "Boondocks" vignettes has the young, left-leaning protagonist Huey (named after radical Huey P. Newton) telling CNN of his plans to go on a hunger strike until "all top BET executives commit Japanese ritual suicide."
Mr. McGruder goes on to depict BET CEO Debra Lee (a Dr. Evil-inspired "Debra Lee-vil") screaming that "the destruction of black people is not happening fast enough!" Khrushchev-like, her animated alter-ego flings a Prada shoe at a BET executive, striking him in the jugular with her heel and causing fountains of blood to erupt.
In the same episode, Lee-vil's animated lieutenant (meant to depict BET Entertainment president -- and, awkwardly, "Boondocks" executive producer Reggie Hudlin) gleefully announces his development plans: "My Harvard education tells me that our goal should be to take all the shitty reality TV shows MTV did five years ago and make them black. Anyone who wants to see a shitty black version of an MTV reality show, well, they'll have to come to us!"
Whether the decision to yank the episodes came at the urging of BET, "Boondocks" producer Sony Television or Cartoon Network is unclear. Mr. McGruder, BET executives Mr. Hudlin and Ms. Lee, and Cartoon Network Chief Content Officer Bob Sorcher did not respond to requests for comment by Ad Age.
But a spokesman for Cartoon Network, James Anderson, did reply via e-mail: "The two episodes you were asking about are not scheduled to air on Adult Swim. We really have no further comment but you should know that neither Turner nor Adult Swim were contacted by BET, Ms. Lee or Mr. Hudlin."
Episodes live on virally
This is 2008, of course, and nothing can ever truly be banned in the age of YouTube. The episodes were posted there, and then quickly taken down -- but not before they spread as one would imagine they might: virally, through dozens of black culture and hip-hop blogs such as Hip-Hop DX and Bump Hip-Hop.
For a show whose second season is about to be released on DVD, it could be a clever, GoDaddy-style "We're being censored!" PR stunt. Then again, the last time Cartoon Network attempted a viral marketing campaign, the result was multiple bomb scares around Boston that prompted the closure of bridges and part of the Charles River.
Leaving aside Mr. McGruder's cultural ax-grinding, his now-public beef with BET and its leaders does raise timely and interesting questions about the network's programming strategy.
Hopes for Hudlin
In June 2005, BET founder Bob Johnson stepped down and transferred power to his chosen successor, Ms. Lee. A month later, she made headlines by hiring Mr. Hudlin, one of Hollywood's few black directors best known for the "House Party" movies as well as, of course, for executive producing "The Boondocks." Many saw his hire as a long-awaited move by the network into original programming, after years of taking a beating at the hands of black leaders who despised its steady menu of hip-hop videos, rented bling and scantily-clad dancers.
The programming changes Mr. Hudlin instituted -- reality fare like "Hell Date" and "American Gangster" among them -- seem to have yielded only slight improvement in overall ratings. But Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media, the country's largest independent media buyer, says it might not be all Mr. Hudlin's fault.
Mr. Adgate notes that BET's total viewers were "essentially flat," from 2006 to 2007, and the reasons for its failure to post sizable gains may have much to do with the loosening of BET's grip on what constitutes "black" entertainment by other media.
A Jan. 29 study by Nielsen Monitor Plus on black media habits found that besides traditional purveyors of "black" entertainment like BET & TV One, "some 61 programs across 16 additional [cable] networks achieved an African American audience of 50% or greater."
Black-interest TV growing
Adds Horizon's Mr. Adgate, "VH-1 is up nearly 50% in total viewers over last year. And some of its biggest shows are 'Flavor of Love' and 'I Love New York.' I think you can make some connection there [about the effect on BET]."
Indeed, the first year-long analysis of ad spending on media outlets that reach African-American consumers by Nielsen's Monitor Plus survey reported that black "national cable TV reported 14.5% growth in the last year." But it also found that "this growth is the result of a number of factors, including year-over-year growth for BET, the inclusion of TV One in the Nielsen Monitor-Plus service as of January 2007, as well as a number of high-profile TV programs such as 'House of Payne' on TBS, 'Being Bobby Brown' on Bravo ... and 'Making the Band' on MTV."
Which brings us back to Mr. McGruder. Whether he's being censored or merely being a savvy viral marketer, he clearly has little incentive to make waves at Turner Broadcasting. Last December, he struck a deal with Turner online comedy site Super Deluxe to create and write live-action series. To bite the hand that's feeding him, Mr. McGruder would have to be a real rube -- one, we might say, that's straight from the boondocks.