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BET Pumps Up Fall With New Shows

Ratcheting up its programming budget, Black Entertainment Television will debut more than a half-dozen new shows this fall, with many emanating from its new studio facility in New York's Harlem.

BET kicks off its new season Sept. 11 and will roll out five new music series, a morning talk show, a late-evening news show, a monthly biography series and a variety of specials.

In addition to its original fare, BET has acquired the series Linc's from Showtime, and plans to add that to its schedule.

In order to build the network's fall slate, BET officials said, they have more than doubled its overall programming budget, taking it to roughly $70 million. That figure includes not only the new shows, but also new sets and talent, program acquisitions, the Harlem facility-located at East 106th Street and Park Avenue-and the addition of a West Coast feed.

"This is a huge investment for us and a huge push in our ongoing evolution," said BET senior vice president of programming Curtis Gadson. "We want to drive home the reality that BET is more than music videos and always has been more than music videos."

To support this ramped-up commitment to originals, BET will spend $12 million on advertising, including buys in print and on radio and competing television networks, including broadcast.

During the past year, BET was the subject of various newspaper stories in which critics complained that the network should ante up for more original programming. Some cable operators have privately raised the same issue.

BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson countered that his network doesn't attract the same ad dollars and license fees that some of the other major basic networks get, hampering program-development efforts.

However, several cable competitors to BET have now entered the marketplace, which may have contributed to this fall's increased commitment to original shows. BET now has its own programming-development department.

Five new BET music shows debuting this fall are 106th & Park, BET Top 10 Live, AM@BET, BET: INY, BET Next and UnCut. Many of them have interactive elements, according to Gadson.

All of BET's music-oriented programs, including long-running shows such as Cita's World and Rap City: The Bassment, now will originate from the 17,000-square foot Harlem studio/office facility. The Manhattan location puts BET near record labels, artists and music executives.

"It's easy to access high-profile talent in New York," Gadson said. "And Harlem is the cultural center for African Americans."

BET is also launching a 10 a.m. Los Angeles-based daily talk show, Oh Drama!, to be hosted by three African-American women. It will be somewhat similar to ABC's The View, but BET expects it to be weightier.

Gadson said his advice to the show's hosts will be to talk about topics and issues "as if there were no men around."

"In this show, men's opinions don't count," he added.

BET has also coaxed journalist Ed Gordon back from MSNBC. He will anchor a weeknight newscast, BET News with Ed Gordon, to air at 11 p.m. It will be followed by BET Tonight With Travis Smiley, creating an hour-long block of news and topical programming from an African-American perspective.

Gordon will also reprise his old BET series, Conversations with Ed Gordon, according to Gadson.

On the news front, BET this week will even cover the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, looking at the event from an African-American perspective.

In addition to regularly scheduled series, BET has a number of concert specials, documentaries and events in the works for next season. For example, BET will be launching BET Black Biographies, monthly specials that will chronicle the lives of such figures as rap mogul Russell Simmons and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Next summer, hoping to mimic the success of its BET 20th Anniversary showcase, the network will televise the first annual BET Awards. The anniversary show did a 1.6 rating: BET's second-highest ever, behind only Gordon's post-acquittal interview of O.J. Simpson.

BET officials said they are using research, focus groups and viewer feedback via the Internet to build a stronger connection to viewers and give them programming they truly want to see.