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BET to Debut New Biography Series

Continuing its focus on original programming, Black Entertainment Television will launch a series of biographical documentaries about prominent African-Americans, as well as a summer music-awards show.

The series,BET's Biographies In Black, bows Oct. 17 with a feature on hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons. Its 13-episode run will also include profiles of civil-rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, sports agent and rapper Master P and gospel singer CeCe Winans.

Produced by BET Pictures II, the company's film-production arm, the series will focus on emerging African-American leaders and entrepreneurs not likely to appear on similar mainstream-cable series like A & E Network'sBiography, BET Pictures president Nina Henderson-Moore said.

"BET felt is was time to feature the fascinating lives of African-Americans, whether they be entertainers or politicians of people who have changed our lives and our culture," Henderson said. "Our viewers will get a very compelling look into the lives of the most visible, influential and, in some cases, controversial African Americans across the public and private spectrums."

Henderson saidBiographies in Blackwould also differ from other cable documentary series in its more personal approach to its subjects.

"Our approach is very personal; you get to take a look into the life of the subject," Henderson said. "We hope that it will give you a new side of the person and what made them into the newsmaker or agent of change that they are today."

The series is part of a major BET original-programming initiative that started with the fall television season. The network said it would spend more than $70 million on programming this year, more than doubling its programming budget.

The result is more than a half-dozen new shows, many originating from new studios in New York City's Harlem. Recently, the network acquired rights to telecast Continental Basketball Association games.

"The series shows that we are investing more dollars into original programming that continues to focus on positive stories about African Americans," BET Holdings Inc. chairman and CEO Robert Johnson said. "We have a well-rounded programming format that addresses the broad viewing interests of African Americans."

Henderson also said BET Pictures II is working on at least four theatrical films, includingBook of Love: The Definitive Reason Why Men Are Dogs, which Artisan Entertainment expects to release in February 2001.

BET Pictures II may also develop several television series that could appear on the cable network, director of development and acquisitions Herbert Niles said.

Meanwhile, the network plans to launch a new music-awards show during Black Music Month in June 2001, according to BET officials.

The network decided to go ahead with the as yet-to-be-named event after digesting the phenomenal ratings success of its 20th anniversary show, which aired earlier this year.

That program, which featured several rhythm-and-blues and rap performers, generated a 1.6 rating-the second-highest ever for the network, executives said.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.