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At BET: Digital's In, Exec's Out

In its first major cable initiative under Viacom Inc., Black Entertainment Television said it will launch a new suite of digital cable networks.

But it must execute the launch without one of its most vocal and influential executives. Curtis Symonds is resigning his post as executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing, according to sources close to the situation.

The new BET digital suite will consist of BET On Jazz: The Jazz Channel, BET International, BET Gospel, BET Classic Soul and BET Hip-Hop. It's unclear how much the programmer will charge for the package.

"In the short-term, we're broadening the range and scope of the overall BET brand and the connection we have with our viewers," BET On Jazz senior vice president Paxton Baker said in a prepared statement. "What we hope to achieve in the long term is a permanent, multigenre presence in the digital universe, which clearly is the future of television programming and technology."

BET on Jazz has the most distribution of the digital networks, reaching about 7 million homes.

It's unclear whether BET is close to striking any digital-suite deals, but some small and midsized operators say distribution efforts could be hampered by growing bad blood between Viacom and operators over licensing increases for other Viacom-owned networks.

Some operators — particularly smaller MSOs — are concerned over a current proposal to increase fees for TNN: The National Network by as much as 100 percent if systems don't also carry sister service CMT: Country Music Television.

Executives at small MSOs said TNN's current 20-cent to 30-cent fee could grow to as much as 50 cents if they choose not to carry the country-music service.

Operators say Viacom could continue to exert substantial leverage on licensing fees given its vast network lineup, including in future negotiations for BET and BET On Jazz.

A BET spokesman said it doesn't expect any problems with operators. He added that the network's affiliate-relations staff, not Viacom's, will negotiate deals. BET expects to continue to have "an excellent rapport" with operators going forward, the spokesman said.

MTV Networks executive vice president of cable distribution and marketing Peter Low also doesn't foresee operator backlash toward BET.

"We have a very positive relationship with our distributors and we don't anticipate any negative fallout," he said.

Low wouldn't comment on specific TNN or CMT rate increases, but he did say the company is not trying to leverage assets against operators. Rather, the programmer is providing more value, ad-sales opportunities and options for operators through increased investments in TNN and its packaging of both services, he said.

While this is the first major cable network initiative for BET since its $3 billion sale to Viacom last November, the network has made news in other areas. BET chairman and CEO Robert Johnson was criticized last month over the firing of popular BET Tonight
host Tavis Smiley.

The company last month also laid off 40 to 50 employees as part of a "work force reduction."

Symonds, a 13-year BET veteran, will remain with the network through June 30.

Throughout his cable career, Symonds has voiced his opinions about the role of minorities in the cable industry. He's been heavily involved with several committees and organizations that deal with minority hiring.

Just recently, Symonds was named co-chair of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's new multicultural marketing committee.

National Association of Minorities in Communications president Patricia Andrews-Keenan, interviewed in mid-April for a story on workplace diversity, said this about the potential loss of Symonds if he decided to leave the industry:

"I think that is a concern for us," she said. "If you don't have people at the executive level raising the issue — someone who has no fear — that's a concern, it's a challenge."