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Will Obama Up BET's Game?

BET, the oldest and still the biggest provider of African-American-targeted programming, has shifted its focus from music videos to original programming and acquisitions—including Baldwin Hills, docu-soap Harlem Heights and Everybody Hates Chris. Now the network will also add The Game,a comedy that will bow this quarter.

Will the post-racial dialogue, ushered in with the election of Barack Obama, give the network renewed relevance? B&C's Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie talks to BET's President and COO Scott Mills about the network's programming and marketing strategies, and what the new president means to BET.

A few years ago, BET shifted its focus to original programming. How has that strategy played out so far?

We've been building our original programming machine. Those investments have worked very well. Keyshia Cole season three was the highest-rated original series in African-American households on cable last year. The second season of Baldwin Hills is one of the highest-rated reality series in African-American households. These shows have really allowed us to create signature programming franchises that have driven significant ratings and really become an important point of difference and distinction for the company.

Former BET president Reginald Hudlin once lamented the fact that there was no “black David E. Kelley.” I think perhaps that's Tyler Perry today. Is it more difficult to compete in the scripted world?

It's a very fair question. Scripted is a valuable element. But it's not as if scripted programming is the Holy Grail. We're generating very strong ratings from our original reality programming. Tyler Perry has been extraordinarily successful. But the reality is there are a number of very talented people in the African-American-targeted scripted space. The big home for that product used to be UPN, and then UPN turns into The CW and The CW has reduced the amount of African-American sitcoms that they've supported.

A lot of people who are making that product don't have an outlet. One of the things we're looking to do is really reach back out to that community.

BET acquired The Wire. The show never got a huge audience. Was that acquisition more valuable as a calling card to the creative community than as a driver of eyeballs?

It was not a ratings juggernaut, we fully acknowledge that. But it did illustrate to people that we were serious about the scope and the tenor of programming that we were committed to putting on the network. And so we thought that it was a very good message to send. We will have Everybody Hates Chris in the fall. We think it's a great product for BET. We have another great acquisition [The Game] coming in Q1.

Did the election of the first African-American president drive eyeballs to BET's news programming? How has BET been able to capitalize on its core audiences' interest in the news surrounding Barack Obama?

President Obama spiked everyone's interest in politics, and certainly our target audiences' interest was off the charts.

BET weathered controversy over violent, misogynistic rap videos. Since Obama first came on the scene, African-American thought leaders have celebrated the fact that the most famous and revered African-American is no longer a hip-hop star or an athlete. It would seem BET is in a unique position to participate in this new collective consciousness.

One of the things that's fabulous about the First Family is that education is so integral to their values. [BET] has an important role to play with respect to communicating and helping address education issues in the African-American community. We think the president and Michelle Obama are wonderful exemplars for us to drive home the point we're looking to make.

Branded content was all the rage before the economic downturn. Are you seeing a continued interest from advertisers in that space, or has the dire economic forecast slowed demand?

We’re seeing a continued interest. What we’re seeing with our partners is a real desire to see how they can compliment their traditional ad buy. We have a couple of very interesting [campaigns]: My Black Is Beautiful with P&G, and we have 17 different marketers integrated into [upcoming docu-soap] Harlem Heights.