BET's CBS News Alliance Yields Layoffs

In its initial major intra-company alliance under Viacom Inc. ownership, Black Entertainment Television will ply the resources of CBS News to help program new and existing news and public affairs initiatives.

However, the agreement — the first of what BET executives expect to be several programming and resource tie-ins with other Viacom-owned services — comes at a price: The African-American targeted programmer will lay off about 15 percent of its overall workforce as part of its news-division restructuring.

BET president and CEO Debra Lee said the move was part of a "redeployment of resources" and "staff adjustments" as the network works to "enhance and strengthen its coverage of news in the African-American community."

The cutbacks are the network's second round of layoffs since the Viacom acquisition last November. BET fired more than 50 employees last March in what it then called a "workforce reduction."

Beginning Oct. 1, CBS will jointly produce BET's weekday news shows BET Nightly News
and BET Tonight with Ed Gordon, although BET will retain complete control of each show's content, senior vice president of news, public affairs and program acquisitions Nina Henderson Moore said.

Gordon, who left BET for MSNBC in 1999, takes the place of former BET Tonight
host Tavis Smiley, who was fired last March.

The announcement, made at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., also calls for CBS to contribute resources to BET's new monthly news magazine show Inside Studio 2,
set to premiere in October.
In addition, the cable network will have access to CBS Newspath's 24-hour newsgathering operation to collect news and information for its other shows.
BET will move production of its news shows from Washington D.C. to a yet-to-be-determined site in New York, Henderson said. BET will also receive production and newsgathering support from CBS-owned broadcast-TV stations.

BET on-air news personalities could also appear in CBS News-related programs as part of the agreement, network officials added.

The deal comes as BET plans to aggressively ramp up its news and public-affairs programming lineup. Along with its current news shows, BET will create short primetime news breaks at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Also, the network will create satellite offices in Washington D.C. — which will feature its first White House correspondent — as well as in Los Angeles and New York.

"Our platform for delivering news and information will be raised to a broader national and international level with this relationship," Henderson said.

CBS News senior vice president of news services John Frazee said in a statement that the broadcaster will "gain the invaluable insight and experience of journalists who know the African-American audience and their issues better than anyone else."

Although the deal is the first synergistic relationship between BET and an Viacom-owned service since its $3 billion purchase last November, Henderson said others are in the works.

"We're talking to all Viacom divisions about the same type of synergies that are encompassed in this announcement," she said. "We'll look for opportunities where we can find platforms in areas, whether they're programming or otherwise, that allow us to take advantage of both networks' brand strengths."

In other BET-related news, the network will bow several new entertainment shows during the 2001-2002 season. Those announced at the TCA tour include NYLA, which will feature entertainment news from both coasts; the 30-minute quizzer On The Beat; a one-hour variety series, The Way We Do It; and How I'm Living, which will showcase the lifestyles of African-American celebrities.

The network also renewed the female-targeted talk show Oh Drama!
for a second season, said BET executives.

The programming announcements come during a ratings surge for the network. BET averaged a 0.6 during the quarter, a 20 percent increase over the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.

R. Thomas Umstead

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.