DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
A new era has begun for BET, the Black Entertainment Network founded 25 years ago by entrepreneur Robert Johnson. Johnson left the company in January, five years after selling BET to the media conglomerate Viacom. Johnson left BET in the hands of his former COO, Debra Lee, who is eager to take on the challenges of BET's second chapter. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY reporting:
When BET rolled out its new programs to the Television Critics Association last month, they did it to the beat of a different drum...
(Soundbite of drummers)
NEARY: ...the Tiger Marching Band of Grambling State University which will be featured in a new BET program, Season of the Tiger, a reality show that debuts in May.
Ms. DEBRA LEE (CEO, Black Entertainment Television): So if that doesn't get everyone's attention, nothing will.
(Soundbite of laughter)
We thought we'd wake you up first thing this morning...
NEARY: Debra Lee introduced the band, clearly relishing her role as the new head of BET. She has spent a lot of time in the shadow of Robert Johnson and seems ready to take center stage.
Ms. LEE: You know, it's hard to get used to Bob not being around and being able to ask him advice, but it's also nice to not have to worry about being second- guessed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: The BET that Debra Lee now runs reaches more than 80 million households and is the leading television network providing African-American programming. In addition to the BET cable network, there are three digital networks, and its website bet.com is the number one Internet portal for African-Americans. BET is also one of a number of networks owned by Viacom.
Mr. KEN SMIKLE (President, Target Market News): Viacom and its resources pretty much ensure that BET is going to be around probably forever.
NEARY: Ken Smikle is president of Target Market News, a research company specializing in the African-American market. Viacom wanted BET, says Smikle, because BET can deliver a lucrative share of the TV audience.
Mr. SMIKLE: The African-American audience is a very competitive space simply because it's been ignored for so long, and this is the opportunity that's left because for discrimination and economic reasons the industry has not paid the kind of attention that it is now.
NEARY: When Viacom first bought BET, some media observers wondered whether a white-owned media conglomerate would truly give an African-American network full autonomy. Lee says BET asked for and has received guarantees that their individuality will be respected.
Ms. LEE: The promise of cable was that you can have niche networks with different voices, and even though we're now part of a bigger company, it's still important for us to have our own voice. So there's no one at Viacom telling me what to put on the air or questioning why I put something on the air. So if we have Louis Farrakhan on, not everyone in the world is going to agree with Louis Farrakhan, but it should be our decision based on our audience.
NEARY: With the financial backing of Viacom, BET now hopes to become the number one destination for all viewers interested in African-American programming. But even as BET starts to think about ways to expand its audience, it still has to deliver what Debra Lee calls its sweet spot, the 18-to-34-year-old viewers who are the networks core audience and are much loved by advertisers, so it's not surprising that one of BET's three new programs is a reality show based on the life of the hip-hop artist Lil' Kim.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Announcer: BET takes you behind the scenes to experience the real- life drama of hip-hop's queen bee, the notorious K-I-M.
NEARY: Videos and hip-hop are the lifeblood of BET, and Reginald Hudlin, BET's new President of Entertainment, says that won't change anytime soon.
Mr. REGINALD HUDLIN (President, BET Entertainment): This shop did not come with a magic wand. It's not about transforming all the programming overnight, nor do we want to. Over the next several years, we're going to be phasing in more and more original programming as we find the right shows for us, we find the right producers to execute those shows, and we feather them into our schedule.
NEARY: Hudlin is well aware of the criticism of BET's dependence on sexy videos of hip-hop music for its programming, but the network's financial success has been built on that programming, which Hudlin points out is not so unlike MTV. Besides, Hudlin says, some people may never like what they see on BET.
Mr. HUDLIN: I don't expect that criticism to go away anytime soon regardless of the programming that is on the channel. But, you know, here's the other thing. A lot of people don't like black youth culture. A lot of people don't like black youth. So when they go, I hate that hippity-hoppity stuff, what the, you know, hey, you may have issues that we can't address.
NEARY: But in its effort to attract younger viewers, BET also lost some viewers who wanted more from the network.
Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Journalist and Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): I mean, I used to watch the news. It's not there anymore. I used to watch The E Story. It's not there anymore. I used to watch BET Tonight. It's not there anymore. I have nothing to watch on BET so I don't watch it.
NEARY: George Curry is a journalist who not only watched BET news programs, he also appeared on them occasionally. Like many people in the black community, he was dismayed when BET eliminated its longtime news and public affairs programs. Curry says as BET begins a new chapter, he doesn't care if they still air music videos, as long as they also pay attention to news.
Mr. CURRY: Everybody is trying to figure out how to get more eyeballs, of course, but they have not abandoned their news programs, CBS has not abandoned its news, ABC has not, NBC has not. There's question about who should be anchoring and how do you have the right format, but then, its not a question of whether they abandoned the news.
NEARY: Lee and Hudland say their not abandoning the news, they're just trying to figure out the best way to deliver it to its young, hip audience which has grown up on 24-7 news programming. One of their new programs will be a faith- based public affairs talk show and instead of a nightly news broadcast, BET now has news briefs throughout the day.
Unidentified Announcer: This semester, the BET News Department offers one of your favorite courses with a fresh new twist, BET News Briefs bring daily news update profiling the top stories of the day.
NEARY: But no network expects to build its audience on news. And despite BET's dominance in the African-American market, it has plenty of competition. TV One is a new cable network going after black viewers and no one's exactly sure how the new CW Network, formed from WB and UPN, will affect BET. BET could pick up some of the programs and some audience from UPN which has a lot of show geared to blacks. But the CW also has the potential to take some viewers away from BET. Herman Gray, author of Watching Race, a book on blacks and TV, says it will be interesting to see how BET reacts to the competition.
Mr. HERMAN GRAY (Author, Watching Race): They could just as easily give us more of the same. You know, more music programming, more canned syndication. And in that sense, its kind of a low cost, low risk investment in order to appeal to that audience. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to begin to try to synch differently about the kinds of programming possibilities that BET can play in that kind of environment.
NEARY: Grey hopes BET will use the resources of Viacom to take risks. The kind of risks that put cable networks like HBO on the map. He's encouraged by the hiring of Hudland, who's had a successful career as a director and producer in Hollywood. Gray says Hudland could attract new talent to BET. And that, says Hudland, is exactly what's happening.
Mr. HUDLAND: They've been knocking on the door. They've been banging down the door and delivering great projects because they're excited about this second stage in the life of the channel and they want to be in on the ground floor of the new changes.
NEARY: And as BET looks to the future, Debra Lee says they're hoping to find that elusive program so prized in the world of television: the watercooler hit. The show that everyone will talk about. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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