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Upfronts 2017: BET Doubling Down on Original Programming

BET tonight (April 27) will hold its network upfront presentation in New York as it looks to further cement its position as the industry’s leading brand for African American viewers. Recently named one of Viacom’s six core brands that the company will put its resources behind, BET is focused on creating quality, original scripted series and movies that it hopes will help thwart increased competition from entertainment-based cable networks looking to reach an African-American audience that watches more television than any other group.

Overall the network plans to increase its original programming lineup by 40% in 2017 with projects like The Bobby Brown Story, a  limited series inspired by the network's successful The New Edition Story mini-series.

BET CEO Debra Lee recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s brand and its programming strategy heading into the upfronts.

MCN: What does Viacom’s naming of BET as one of its six core brands mean for the network’s brand?

DL: It's really great to be named as one of the six flagship brands for Viacom, and I think that just speaks to the fact that we're the premiere destination for African-Americans, and we have been for a long time. We have been the number one cable network for African-American viewers 18 to 49 for 16 consecutive years, and a top 20 ad-supported cable network for people 18 to 49, so I think that’s part of the recognition by Viacom as to how important our brand is and what it means. I think it's important what BET Networks is to our culture -- we're relevant, radically bold and we're fun -- and I think our audience expects that from us. Our audience sets the trend for not only black culture but culture in general. We are the most social and more engaged audience, so it's a great recognition by our parent company. We've done several upfront presentations in smaller venues and people are responding to us.

MCN: With a number of mainstream audiences developing content to reach African-American viewers, is this one of the most competitive environments in which to reach your target audience?

DL: It gets more competitive every year. I mean 37 years ago when BET started, we were the only network targeting this audience and I'm very proud of that. And over the years other networks have learned what we've always known; that our audience is engaged and are big TV watchers and they are very social. They set the trends and define pop culture, so you know we've seen more competition year in and year out. But competition makes the leaders stronger and that continues to happen. We see what other people are doing -- a network may have a black-targeted night once a week, or a couple of hours of black programming. We're one of the few networks that targets this audience 24 hours a day.

MCN: The network has stepped up its development of scripted programming in recent years. How important has that been in defining the BET brand?

DL: Twelve years ago when I took over as CEO of BET I promised our audience premium scripted programming, and I kept that promise with shows like The Game, Being Mary Jane, Real Husbands of Hollywood. This year we launched The Quad and Rebel, as well as [limited series] Madiba and our huge success with New Edition. So I've kept I've kept my word and now our audience expects high quality scripted programming from us. We also do some unscripted, but scripted really gives us a chance to be authentic and create drama from a storyline as opposed to a reality setting. And so we're going to continue to do that -- we're going to double down on biopics given the success of The New Edition Story with 29 million viewers over three nights.We're going to do The Bobby Brown Story with the same writing that we did New Edition. We have something called Death Row Chronicles which is a six-part look at Death Row Records, so we’re going to continue to tell these authentic stories. Overall we're going to have over 40 percent more original hours of programming going into this upfront. Viewers always wanted us to look like ABC or NBC and have high quality scripted programming, but we will also have talk shows and game shows and everything else so I think you'll see a nice mix.

MCN: Amid the success BET has had recently on the programming side, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about recent network programming executive departures. Can you talk about what happened and what’s happening within the department going forward?

DL: Well you know there are always changes and so we did have some changes in our programming leadership. [BET senior vice president of specials, music programming and news] Connie Orlando is the head of programming -- she's been here a long time and she's done scripted and unscripted programming. She was put in charge of our tentpoles so she's been doing that for a couple of years running the BET Awards and some of our other big tent poles. So I'm really excited about Connie's new leadership and what she brings to the team.

MCN: What is your sense as to how strong the upfront will be for BET and for cable?

DL: People realize how important our audience is, and you mentioned how many other networks are aiming for this audience. So I think it’s going to be a strong upfront -- [advertisers] are excited to hear about the new Viacom and about the six flagship brands, and to hear what our individual strategies are. So I think it's going to be a good year for cable and especially for BET. One thing I haven’t mentioned is Centric TV. It’s being refreshed as BET Her, which will be the name of it going forward. We think this better aligns Centric with the BET flagship brand. It’s been a destination for African-American women 25 to 54 and we’re going to continue to service her through this channel. So now we’re going to have BET, BET Her, BET Jazz, BET Soul as our network portfolio. I’m really excited about that.

MCN: Will you look to build on BET’s presence on the digital front in 2017?

DL: Yes. We’re always looking at OTT and other digital opportunities because we want to be everywhere our audience is. The technology is changing so much that we always try to keep up, whether that's on iTunes, Netflix or other OTT offerings. We’re doing our first ever Black Twitter impact study. Black Twitter is such an important part of conversation and it really drives mainstream culture, so we've joined forces with Twitter to look at this more carefully and we're going to release the findings with Twitter. We just know it's such a powerful mechanism for our audience and there's a strong correlation between tweeting and watching live TV. So digital is really important to us and along with Viacom -- we're looking at ways to produce more digital content and how to service that audience better.

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.