The protests over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody have gripped the country and dominated TV news reports for weeks. Support for the African-
American community and calls for an end to systematic racism have come from all corners of the entertainment world through actions such as ViacomCBS’s 8-minute, 46-second blackout across all of its channels on June 1, signifying the time Floyd was pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer with a knee on his neck.
BET Networks president Scott Mills recently spoke with Multichannel News to address the issues of police brutality and racial inequity facing the country and the role of the ViacomCBS-owned outlet, and the media in general, in providing a voice for African Americans and a platform to advocate for change. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
MCN: Over the years we’ve both seen protests over incidents of police brutality targeted at African-Americans, but George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests seem different. Why?
Scott Mills: I think it’s a fabulous question because I’ve been focused on that a lot myself and I think it’s a series of things. Part of me actually wonders if part of why society is responding to this differently has something to do with COVID-19. I think COVID-19 forced a lot of people to take a more human perspective on things and to think more about vulnerabilities, frailties, equity, inequality and disparities.
Coming out of that broad context, this extraordinary drumbeat of shockingly egregious murders that have been occurring recently has really influenced the way people have responded. We all know that the protests and the marches are a significant part of people wanting justice for injustices that have been perpetrated. But I also think they’re materially about people saying, ‘We want change.’ We’re seeing people act with such brazen impunity, and that leadership is completely absent on these issues. I think we’re seeing more people being more sensitive to the injustices that are perpetrated upon our community.
MCN: Does the renewed discussion about the need for more diverse voices and representation within the media echo throughout the cable industry, even as distributors cut back their channel lineups?
SM: I think what we’re experiencing is a furthering affirmation of the importance of BET and scaled diverse media platforms. If you don’t have scale, you can program as much and as long as you want, but if you’re not reaching a large enough audience your message isn’t getting out there, and you may not have the standing to convene the people that you really need to convene. An example of that is BET’s securing of $17 million of commitments to COVID-19 relief efforts through [the April 22 special Saving Our Selves]. That was about BET using all of its resources and assets and extraordinary relationships with talent and advertisers. It’s not clear to me that but for BET, could any other platform have functioned at the scale we did that could get you to $17 million? We take that responsibility extraordinarily seriously.
MCN: How does BET take on the responsibility of not only bringing light to these injustices, but helping to facilitate change going forward?
SM: We understood that one of the important things was creating a platform that afforded African-American leaders the ability to communicate their views and perspectives around what was happening, why it was happening, what the failings were and what a course for a correction was. We sought to not have African-American leaders scattered across a bunch of different networks, but to be able to come together in a single place and speak to the African-American community. We’ve been able to do that with our news special Justice Now: A BET Town Hall, where we had the voices of leaders from the activist community, the political community in the political space and from the entertainment community.
The second thing was this understanding that what we’re seeing on the streets is a function of people’s fear, anger, grief and anxiety. Our view was that we would have to create a safe outlet for that. We have to give people an opportunity to have a voice, to express their rage, to express their grief, to engage in community, as we did through our virtual town hall special.
The thing that we are particularly excited about is that we’ve invited President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to come to BET and tell our community what they’re prepared to do in a presidential forum on Juneteenth, June 19. It’s not a debate — they wouldn’t be speaking simultaneously — but a presidential forum where they will have the ability to speak to BET’s audience … We think the opportunity for our community to hear from each of them is going to be an important catalyst for how people think about the election in November.
MCN: Has ViacomCBS been on board with everything that BET has and will continue to do with regards to providing a voice for the African-American community?
SM: So far everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to do it.’ With the COVID relief effort, we explained that we wanted to go out and raise money for African-Americans because we had this insight before anybody else was talking about it. We knew that African-Americans were going to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID virus. When I said to them that here are the 10 things that we’re doing to address the current crisis, everybody said, ‘Awesome. That’s the role you guys are supposed to be playing.’ So we have really amazing support.
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.
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