Guiding BET to Innovate, Launch New Stars

In June, longtime BET executive Michael Armstrong was named to the newly created role of general manager for BET Networks, where he will be in charge of navigating the industry’s leading African-American targeted brand through a very competitive and often volatile media landscape. Armstrong recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about his vision for the 37-year-old network, which earlier this year was named one of the six brands that parent company Viacom will focus its resources on going forward. An edited transcript follows.

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MCN:How would you define the BET brand?
Michael Armstrong: The BET brand is a place where you can find innovative formats, content and programming for consumers of black culture worldwide. We’re now in well over 60 countries and more than 40 million households. We’ve got BET feeds around the world — Africa, France, U.K. and the U.S. — and we’re continuing to grow. So when you think about BET as a brand, we can’t just think of it as the U.S. brand — which is obviously our bread and butter — but about BET as a global brand, servicing viewers with a BET channel at almost every waking hour. When you think of BET as one of the flagship six brands here at Viacom, it’s because we’re a global brand that serves a global consumer.

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MCN:You mentioned BET as being named one of Viacom’s six flagship brands. Is that a comforting testament to the value of the BET brand, or does that put more pressure on BET to live up to lofty expectations?
MA: If you think about brands inside of today’s media world, the idea that you have to live up to expectations is a given. You’re constantly trying to make connections with your consumers. We are judged by how people are taking to the content that we’re offering them and how people are responding to the brand. We’re increasingly interacting with our consumers in digital and social, and responding in real time to what they’re saying.

MCN:Currently, there’s unprecedented media competition to reach the African-American viewer. Given that, how do you keep BET as a leading brand for its core African-American audience?
MA: I think the way that we win in that space is we just remain authentic to who we are, which is a platform that launches and incubates new stars. We’re doing that and will continue to do that with programming that we offer on a regular basis. There are always going to be hit shows [targeting African-American viewers] all across the dial — that’s just how this business works. But if we remain true to who we are on a consistent basis, we will continue to be the leading brand.

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MCN:What should viewers expect to see on BET going into 2018?
MA: We will continue to innovate in all areas of programming, including unscripted and biopics. We were very successful with the New Edition biopic and we are following that up with the Bobby Brown story. We also are excited about bringing back some of our favorites. The Quad was an innovative way to tell a story about a fictitious HBCU and all of the different things that happened on that campus, so we’re excited about seeing how that story continues to evolve. We also have a great new talent in Robin Thede coming for a late-night show; 50 Cent brought his comedic skills and identification of great talent to the network with 50 Central. So we have a platform that we use to continue to launch and incubate new talent, and we are super excited about what that’s going to mean for our future because people want fresh and new, not only content but also formats.

MCN:What do you see as the biggest challenges for BET going into the rest of the year and into 2018?
MA: The biggest challenges for any brand are really ratings and ultimately making sure that the programming that you’re creating is connecting with the viewer. So our challenge is to make sure that we’re creating innovative programming. We have a lot of faith in the upcoming slate for the network, as well as our returning favorites. So we’re going to just keep our foot on the gas and make sure that we’re listening to our consumers and giving them more of what they want.

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.