How BET's Original Programming Looks To The Past And Future For Network Success
Black Entertainment Television (BET) was born “out of a need.” That’s a statement made by the network’s executive vice president, head of programming Connie Orlando, who says within the company’s 35-year existence, its apparent or covert influence on other cable channels (Centric, Bounce TV, Aspire) led to a fleet of programs that reflect the black experience.
“Our content wasn’t as widespread as it is now,” Orlando says. “There wasn’t a home for young black musicians, for actors, for people behind the scenes. BET was birthed out of this need and this want to see ourselves reflected on television and see our stories. Before BET, I think we all hungered for it.”
BET's programming foundation rests upon a show's ability to be rooted in drama, power, and diverse characters. Original series like Being Mary Jane, The Game after it was acquired from the CW, and most recently, Tales, In Contempt, and The Quad have proven pivotal for BET in terms of a programming shift. (In 2017, BET ended the year at No. 29 out of 30 on a list of basic cable network primetime ratings. From ages 18-49, viewers tuned in to leave BET at the 228,000 mark. In 2016, the organization was at the 220,000 mark.)
However, given the conglomerate's prowess with original content, it's hard to miss the fact that shows derived from nostalgia prove to be just as popular—and profitable. At the top of 2017, BET struck show business gold with The New Edition Story. The three-part miniseries, which garnered a total of 29 million viewers, followed the rise, fall, and resurgence of the ‘80s R&B group. For die-hard fans, lukewarm supporters, and newbies, each type of viewer enjoyed a piece of the program directed by Chris Robinson and executive produced by Jesse Collins (BET Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards). In the January 2017 VIBE cover story, Collins revealed that only two entities supported the making of the biopic, and one was BET.
“You take this iconic brand and then you create programming that not only is nostalgic but also brand new,” Orlando says. “It’s a marrying of the worlds.” BET puts that statement into action with the reimagining of Soul Train; the company acquired the rights to the legendary show in 2016. American Soul, a 10-part small screen event, will be based on the late Don Cornelius’ rise in his thirties and his ‘70s show, that served as a televised hub of black culture and entertainment. From the latest dance craze to performances by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and more deemed Soul Train as a one-stop-shop for black expression. BET has also been part of Soul Train’s legacy since 2009 when the awards showcase switched television homes from WGN America (1987-2007).
Another program that oozes in nostalgia is anticipated The Bobby Brown Story. Set to debut on Sept. 4-5, actor Woody McClain, 29, steps into the titular singer’s shoes and highlights the pinnacle of his career as a rich 20-something-year-old and his highly-publicized lows. (McClain played Brown in the aforementioned New Edition biopic.) In a Billboard interview, the South Carolina native revealed he was taken aback by some of Brown’s life encounters, and questioned whether the “My Prerogative” singer felt comfortable sharing those touchy moments. “When I was reading [the script], I was like, ‘What?!’ Bobby would look at me and be like, ‘Yep!’ I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to put this in the movie? You don’t want to take this out?’ He’d say, ‘No, this is my truth.’ And I respect that about him,” he said.
Orlando has similar sentiments when it comes to the “King of R&B” and admits there’s a curiosity within fans who want to know more. “With Bobby Brown, we have our heroes and icons that crossed multiple generations and while Bobby is considered nostalgic, he’s a rock star,” she says. “People are interested in him and his story because we get to tell the story as it’s never been told. I think people really show up for BET because not only do we give new information, we’re always authentic to the story and really educate people and give them new information on their icons and things that matter to them.”
While the information aspect is integral to a successful program, Orlando adds how seeing yourself depicted on television can be its own attraction. “It’s just so funny how seeing yourself, your story, your experience reflected on TV with people that look like you and in a way that really reflects your experience,” Orlando notes, “it brings so many more people to the table and it’s so empowering.” The table is not only lined with viewers/consumers, but also ad conglomerates.
According to Market Realist, BET contributed to its parent company Viacom's boom in ad revenue growth after the network gained "227 million television subscribers" in 2017's fiscal year. Part of that increase was due to the success of recurring programs like the BET Awards (that raked in 4.3 million viewers in 2018), The Real Husbands of Hollywood or the previously noted Being Mary Jane. Viacom also ended its 2018 third quarter with "adjusted earnings from continuing operations of $475 million," Billboard reported.
“At the bottom line for everyone, it’s a business, but I don’t think others would be telling these stories or there would be so much programming if advertisers weren’t interested in the programming,” Orlando says. “And that’s just a bumpy way of saying it. They see the light now, too. These are the stories, people are showing up and watching them. There are very few shows they’re going to say, ‘Oh, well they’re not successful.’ "
And that’s a mindset that translates from the ad meetings onto the original content whiteboard. “There’s no good or bad programming, it’s about being competitive,” Orlando states. BET will leap into more scripted programming with nine original films in the pipeline, and revamp “existing intellectual property” like its recent acquirement of Boomerang “to create new content.” There’s also a plan to branch into more lifestyle programs and, not to mention, a possible 106 & Park reboot or a daily show that’s “topical and relevant” that can exist in the social media sphere. (The Rundown with Robin Thede was canceled after its first season in late July.) Given its prominence within pop culture, Orlando says fans of certain musicians that BET would cover no longer have to wait until 6 p.m. to watch their videos or interviews thanks to social media’s nature of instant gratification.
“If you look at examples like Insecure, that was birthed out of a digital show,” Orlando points out. “We’ve partnered with Viacom Digital Studios to produce more digital and social first content that is original that can then maybe translate to the small screen. We try to engage and look to our social influencers to see what is hot, what is new and, most importantly, what’s next. Then we try to create all our programming with 360 tentacles: what’s on TV is also driven by what we have on our social and digital platforms.”
Thinking of BET in the mindset of “for the people,” there’s also an initiative in the works to open doors for the next generation of creators. Orlando shares that Issa Rae's Color Creative is a new partner, and through Project Create in conjunction with Paramount Players, BET plans to allocate $1 million to a burgeoning screenwriter to help fulfill their dream—and maybe, just maybe, produce content that one day a network like BET will reboot or reimagine. "There are so many talented folks out there that the world doesn’t acknowledge until they’ve had a big hit but we want to be part of growing these folks as well,” Orlando says, “discovering them, and getting them into the world.”
As the station’s slogan “we got you” continues to increase in meaning with each new program—the network has since premiered The Grand Hustle, acquired Hit The Floor, debuted an original documentary called Vixen, and the newly announced Hustle In Brooklyn—Orlando makes it everyone’s mission on her team to work in the vein of responsibility for its demographic’s stories. “I always say, BET, we can tell a story like no one else can because we are the story,” she concludes. “We can always have heart, we can always approach it from our unique point-of-view because it is our story.”