Dancing Into the Future

Though Black Entertainment Television is about to undergo a major transition with the departure of founder and CEO Robert Johnson at the end of this year, there are already clear signs of how BET will evolve in its new era. While the departure of legendary founders can often produce a difficult transition, BET will be ruled by someone who is intimately familiar with its inner workings.

Debra Lee, who becomes CEO at the end of this year, is currently the company's president and chief operating officer. Trained as an attorney at Harvard Law School, Lee has been with BET for 19 years and has been the company's No. 2 executive since 1996.

And she clearly knows how she plans to steer the ship. “BET is 25 years old, but we have to look ahead to the next 25 years in terms of where we take programming and where we take the brand,” Lee says.

To better understand that future, BET top management spent several months last year developing a three-to-five-year plan for the business. As part of that process, they hired outside consultants from Booze Allen Hamilton to study the company's brand and audience by interviewing senior executives, advertisers, affiliates and over 900 African-Americans who had watched BET within a 60-day period.

The study highlighted several things that have become the basis for new programming and marketing strategies. Most notably, Lee explains that BET's programming strategy will now be more tightly focused on African-Americans 18 to 34 and that the company will ramp up its original fare.

That involves producing about one new series each quarter, says Stephen Hill, BET's executive vice president of entertainment and music programming. “We understand it is the way to build the network. We are in development [on the largest slate in our history]; we are looking at the future. We are all wearing our shades because the future is so bright.”

Research has indicated that the network's viewers want more comedy and programs that reflect their lives, so BET is working to revitalize its long-running Comic View franchise. It is developing new comedy talent and has commissioned at least two new reality shows, Hill notes.

Informational programming, such as The Cousin Jeff Chronicles and the BET Nightly News, are also part of the push to create more programming that relates to the experiences and lives of BET's core audience.

And, the network also continues to invest heavily in specials and event programming. Besides such shows as BET Awards and Celebration of Gospel, the network recently aired its first fashion show, Rip the Runway, and next fall it will produce a gala event celebrating its silver anniversary.

Last year's research also produced a new on-screen look and marketing strategy says Kelli Lawson, executive vice president of corporate marketing.

Since the late 1990s, BET had promoted itself as the place for African-American stars in the sports, music and entertainment arena with the tag line “Black Star Power.” But last year, the network opted to adopt a more down-to-Earth tagline: “It's My Thing.”

“It reflects the fact that we want to turn the lens on our viewers to create a meaningful one-on-one relationship on their own terms. Ultimately, we want to give our viewers a feeling of ownership and equity in BET programming,” Lawson says.

While BET and Viacom executives stress that the division will continue to be independently managed, some closer ties between BET and various Viacom divisions are in the works. Most important, MTV Networks has taken over BET's affiliate-sales efforts. Lee and Johnson stress that the move is designed to boost their negotiating clout with operators and will not lead to tighter MTVN control over BET.

MTVN will help BET's digital networks build up their distribution, says Paxton Baker, executive vice president of BET Digital Networks and BET Event Productions.

The first priority will be BET Jazz, which reaches about 11 million homes and has been profitable for about three years, even though about 40% of its programming is original. But MTV will also be pushing BET Gospel, which only is available in Atlanta in about 100,000 homes. “MTV Networks is very committed to helping BET Jazz and BET Gospel reach a much wider audience,” Baker says.

BET also plans to use Viacom assets to improve its programming and marketing. CBS News is helping BET with its newscast, and it is also talking to Paramount about acquisitions and potential movie projects, Lee says.

BET invested in the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman and heavily promoted it during its shows. That helped Diary, which was released by Lions Gate, open as the highest-grossing movie on its opening weekend in late February, according to Lee.

“With Diary and other films, we have proven time and again that we can really help African-American movies open,” Lee says. “We are looking to further develop the movie strategy and put the BET brand on more theatrical movies. Our sister networks, MTV and Nickelodeon, have already been successfully doing that with Paramount.”

BET is establishing closer ties to other Viacom entities. It participates in Viacom Plus, which allows advertisers to buy inventory across a number of Viacom platforms. The network also engages in cross promotions with other Viacom networks and divisions. “There are a ton of promotional synergies that we can leverage by working with our siblings,” Lawson says.