Shaking Up Black Entertainment Television

Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced major changes in its spring programming. Critics say the 26-year-old cable network is currently too focused on music videos and offers little substance.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

This week, BET, the nation's leading TV network dedicated to African-Americans, announced some changes in its programming. Over the years, the network has been criticized by some who say it hasn't had enough diverse programming and too few news shows. As the cable channel enters its 26th year, BET's new leadership is hoping to turn around that perception, and network executives say, this spring, audiences will get a sampling of the changes to come. NPR's Nova Safo reports.

NOVA SAFO reporting:

What happens on BET this spring is, in a way, a continuation of what happened six years ago when the network underwent a change of ownership. Media conglomerate Viacom bought BET for $3 billion from its founder, Robert Johnson. Johnson leaves the network later this month. Viacom was willing to pay such a high price because BET is one of the most financially successful of the cable networks. It reported a 17 percent increase in viewers last year, and Hollywood trade publication Variety says BET's expected income last year was more than $200 million, while the network only spent about 66 million on programming.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Don't shake it off. That's how you play it off. Shake it off.

SAFO: BET is succeeding with a formula of mostly hip-hop videos and syndicated reruns, as well as some original reality shows such as "College Hill," which enters its third season this spring.

(Soundbite of "College Hill")

Unidentified Woman #1: When we got into the hot tub, Anya wanted to have a house meeting to lay down the rules of the house.

Unidentified Woman #2: House rules: There will be no sex on the couch, the den, public areas everybody will be in.

Unidentified Man #2: The table in the living room.

Unidentified Woman #3: The kitchen counter.

Unidentified Woman #2: Everybody paying attention?

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes!

Unidentified Woman #2: There will be no...

SAFO: "College Hill" is one of the top-rated shows on BET, but the network is now looking toward other types of programming for future growth. Founder Robert Johnson's protege, Debra Lee, has succeeded him as president and CEO, and she's brought in new talent, signaling a shift for BET. At a conference of television critics in Los Angeles this week, Lee said both the cable channel and its founder are facing a new future.

Ms. DEBRA LEE (President and CEO, BET): Bob purposely chose a time of great achievement, momentum and optimism about BET's future to official begin his second act, and now we must do the same, the second act of BET.

SAFO: Some of the new players in that second act include Dennis Cowan, an animation producer who will head the nation's first-ever animation division, and Reginald Hudlin, a Hollywood director and writer who's been tapped as president of entertainment. Speaking of the TV critics, Hudlin outlined lofty goals for BET.

Mr. REGINALD HUDLIN (President of Entertainment, BET): BET is the biggest black media company in the world. And looking forward to the next 25 years, our goal is to make BET the repository of all black culture.

SAFO: If that happens, it would be a far cry from what BET is now. In addition to criticisms about its reality shows and abundant music videos, the channel has also gotten plenty of heat for cutting back on news and public affairs programs. BET executives say they plan to focus more on news specials, which have proven popular, specials such as ones covering the reaction to the Michael Jackson acquittal in his molestation trial and the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

There are also plans to premiere a Sunday morning talk show called "Meet the Faith." Former CNN political analyst Carlos Watson will host. Watson says the show will debate the issues from a spiritual and moral point of view.

Mr. CARLOS WATSON (Host, "Meet the Faith"): And if ever there was a time for a new kind of Sunday talk show in the midst of the Iraq War, gay marriage, a new set of elections, now is the time. We'll have unusual guests. We certainly will have Cornel West and Mase, but you'll also perhaps end up seeing Madonna and Jerry Falwell. But at our very best, I hope that when you watch this show and watch it across its breadth, that you'll say that we not only discuss the news but we help set the news agenda.

SAFO: Watson's goals are an example of the type of change BET executives are touting, but change may be slow in coming. The only tough questioning network executives faced from television critics at the Los Angeles conference came in connection to another reality show, one focusing on the 20 days in the life of rapper Lil' Kim. She was convicted of lying under oath about a shooting case, and the last 20 days that the show focuses on are the ones before she went to prison. Here's how the network portrayed the reality show to critics in a video presentation.

(Soundbite of video presentation)

Unidentified Man #3: Don't miss hip-hop's sexy soldier staying true to her word, mouth shut, head held high, as he prepares to do hard time for refusing to snitch. "The Lil' Kim Project"--her words, her life, her way.

Mr. HUDLIN: Is she a soldier or is she a victim? Watch the show. Decide for yourself.

SAFO: That comment from Reginald Hudlin prompted one critic to ask if Hudlin was glorifying Lil' Kim's actions.

Mr. HUDLIN: That is a misinterpretation. We take a very serious look at her life and her choices and, you know, the consequences of those choices. Yes, it's absurd and it's tragic, but believe me, we do not look away from the hard truth of what's going on.

SAFO: The reality series debuts in March of this year, and critics will see if Hudlin's assurances pan out both for that show and for the network as a whole. Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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