Over the first 25 years of Black Entertainment Television’s existence, one criticism has been leveled so frequently and in so many different forums, that it has become the most definable aspect of the network. For the past decade, members of the African-American community and cable industry executives have been among the loudest voices criticizing BET for its too-sexy music videos. Partly because it’s been the only network that targeted African-Americans, BET didn’t feel the need to change. That will change this fall, when three networks aimed at African-Americans complete their launches: the independent MBC (about 30 million households); the Comcast/Radio One-owned TV One (close to 10 million households); and Urban America TV Network (22 million households, mostly through low-power broadcast stations). In the face of the coming competition, BET changed its programming schedule, spending the past several months rolling out a prime-time lineup that is much more diverse than the steamy videos it used to peddle. The increased competition also has given some cable operators hope that they will gain leverage over the Viacom-owned network. Operators, who will be looking to see if the new channels erode BET’s audience share, say BET needs to do more to add high-quality programming. "I’m not sure they’ve gotten the full benefit of Viacom’s programming muscle," says Peter Smith, SVP of programming and product development for cable operator Millennium Digital Media. "They’ve made efforts to broaden their appeal. The shows may be good, but they’re not breaking out and becoming a topic of conversation around the watercooler. They’ve left themselves vulnerable to competition, which is what we’re seeing from TV One and MBC." The Response to Competition BET executives plan to enhance their lineup by focusing on original programming. BET president/COO Debra Lee and her executive team are exploring three avenues:
"In time, we might create our own genres," Hill says. "The only marching order we have is to find and develop programming that’s extremely attractive to our viewers. We’re not going to tie ourselves to one direction, whether reality or scripted programs." The unit also will look at producing TV movies and miniseries, such as the $1 million per film features it made five years ago based on its "Arabesque" romance book line. "There’s a stronger priority now to do original films, and we’re in better shape to do them," Lee says. "We’re talking with [fellow Viacom unit] Paramount and others about ideas [for original films]."
Now, executives are going deeper, exploring shared windows and joint development of shows. With little notice, fellow Viacom network Nick at Nite’s new Fatherhood, an animated sitcom, created by Bill Cosby, was carried by BET several times this summer, each time a few days after the Nick at Nite premiere. BET is talking with Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite about other projects; similar discussions are going on with Showtime. "Being in a family that understands brands and how to build them with great programming allows you to have this process," Lee says.
Keeping an Eye on the Other Guys Both Hill and Lee say they are not responding to the plans of MBC, TV One and Urban America TV. Still, they’re keenly aware of what these channels are doing. In particular, they have taken note of actor/director Robert Townsend’s role in the eventual transformation of MBC into Black Family Channel; Townsend has attracted new talent on both sides of the camera and is working with modest production budgets. Should Townsend’s strategy lead to good ratings, it could spur BET—and other cable programmers—to produce low- and mid-budget shows. "If MBC or Lifetime or a channel yet to be launched makes great programming more efficiently, then great," Hill adds. BET is able to call on ancillary networks, such as BET on Jazz. Millennium’s Smith says he’s more inclined to add BET on Jazz than MBC. "We have to see how Townsend puts his stamp on the MBC lineup first," he says. Since BET concentrated its affiliate relations effort last year on multiyear MSO renewals, BET on Jazz received little attention. A new operator clearance campaign for BET on Jazz, as well as separate diginets devoted to hip-hop and gospel music, will be starting soon. That’s the first priority of new affiliate sales SVP Donovan Gordon, who moved from Showtime to BET a few weeks ago. "The problem is many operators still think jazz is an extremely narrow market," Lee says. "Our job is to convince them otherwise." Programming Changes As BET pursues more original programming, advertising revenue is on track for a 20% revenue jump this year. Sprint, Papa John’s and Boost Mobile are among the 19 new clients running ads, says Louis Carr Jr., broadcast media sales president for BET. Much of the new business came from BET’s first-ever upfront sales presentation in New York this spring, highlighted by a controversial set of Twilight Zone-style videos (starring Carr in the Rod Serling role) designed to counter stereotypes the ad community has about African-Americans. "Louis and his team over the years have heard every imaginable reason why people don’t buy BET, and he wanted to showcase not only the reasons to buy, but show why reasons not to buy are not acceptable," Lee explains. "The event was designed to make points—and it did." BET’s sales pitch was helped by the network’s more diverse original fare, Carr says. "When people take a close look at what networks have created signature shows that reach their target audience, they have to conclude we’ve done as good or better a job as anyone else," he says. "Anyone that has a new CD or movie aimed at our audience has to be on 106 & Park. BET Nightly News is a signature show. You can’t ignore the $700 billion in disposable income our community generates. No matter what, we still stick to our target." BET’s programming lineup is as diverse as it’s been in the nearly four years since Viacom bought the channel for $3 billion from founder and current CEO Bob Johnson. There’s BET Nightly News, College Hill, stand-up showcases Club Comic View and Coming to the Stage and three Black Star Cinema nights. There are also reruns of the drama series Soul Food and Girlfriends from Viacom channels Showtime and UPN, respectively. The Viacom Conundrum BET cannot seem to escape rumors that it eventually will be moved under MTV Networks’ umbrella. These rumors took on a new life earlier this summer when Tom Freston was promoted to Viacom co-president/COO and Judy McGrath was upped to MTV Networks chairman/CEO. Freston told reporters at the Television Critics Association meeting in Los Angeles in July that there were no plans to integrate BET into MTV Networks. He hinted that Viacom would step up program development discussions with the channel. "The current structure is working very well…and Tom has assured us it will continue to be that way," says Lee. "When Viacom acquired us, we were promised autonomy because of the kind of network we are and the audience we serve. They’ve kept their word. Tom knows the creative and programming process, and I’m sure we’ll work together more as we go forward."