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A Pivotal Shift at BET

New CEO Sees the Need for Wider Range of Programming

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005; D01

When Debra L. Lee was named chief executive of Black Entertainment Television last week, there was no ceremony, no speeches. Just a company-wide e-mail. After all, Lee had been in charge of the company's day-to-day operations for the past nine years.

But while Lee's duties didn't change much, BET may never be the same.

Lee, 50, takes over BET at a pivotal time for the District-based network, which reaches 80.6 million cable subscribers. Not only is she the first chief executive to follow the company's departing founder, Robert L. Johnson, but the company she inherits is vastly different from the one he created 25 years ago with a $15,000 loan. Instead of an upstart taking its place among a dozen or so cable channels, BET boasts that it is now recognized in 100 percent of African American households. Yet it must fight for viewers in an ever-expanding universe of channels.

BET, which is now a division of the media company Viacom Inc., has established itself with its target audience of young adult African Americans through a heavy rotation of music videos and reruns of old dramas and sitcoms. But that won't be enough to sustain BET's brand indefinitely, according to industry analysts and the company's own leaders.

The reason is the dizzying number of basic and digital cable networks vying for people's attention, including two direct competitors: TV One, based in Silver Spring and backed by urban radio broadcaster Radio One and cable operator Comcast; and the Black Family Channel of Raleigh, N.C., bankrolled by investors led by millionaire trial lawyer Willie Gary.

TV One and the Black Family Channel aren't in enough households yet to be a factor, Lee said. TV One reaches 18 million subscribers and the Black Family Channel reaches 30 million. That still leaves everyone else.

"What keeps me up at night is MTV, UPN . . . ABC and Fox's 'American Idol.' Those are the ones that take viewership away," said Lee, a Harvard Law School graduate who started her career as a telecommunications lawyer. Her clients included BET, and she was recruited to join the company 19 years ago as its general counsel.

To remain on top in today's hypercompetitive environment, some say BET under Lee must come up with more compelling content.

The key, said Deborah Gray-Young, vice president and director of media services of E. Morris Communications, a Chicago marketing firm, is finding shows that appeal to those consumers and advertisers who have not always felt comfortable with BET's sometimes racy fare.

Founder Johnson readily agreed. "BET has to be considered more than a black business success story," he said. "It has to be considered a black programming success story."

Lee is well aware of the task she faces. She has already tinkered with BET's lineup, adding reruns of "Soul Food" and "Girlfriends" to the schedule. And she has hired a director of development to get original programs in the pipeline.

Lee also has designs on expanding BET's reach internationally through its BET Jazz network. BET had an international presence once before but abandoned it, she said.

Lee's ambitions aren't confined to the small screen. She said BET will likely delve deeper into the moviemaking business by starting its own production company. BET recently invested in and promoted "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which opened No. 1 at the box office and grossed $22.7 million in its opening weekend. "We've shown we can help open a movie," she said.

Many of these initiatives will require the backing of senior management at Viacom, which bought BET from Johnson for $3 billion in 2000. In fact, Ken Smikle, president of Chicago-based research firm Target Market News, said BET's corporate parent will have to play at least as big a role in BET's transformation as Lee. "The pressure is on Viacom now to do all of those things they said they would do to enhance BET as a full-fledged, branded network," he said.

Potentially complicating Lee's plans for BET in the near-term is Viacom's plan to split up the company, separating its fast-growing cable TV and movie holdings from its slower-growing CBS television network and its Infinity radio stations. If the split occurs, BET will most likely be grouped with MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures. Lee said she has received personal assurances from Viacom co-president Tom Freston that it will be "business as usual" at BET.

Lee, who lives in the District with her two children, said there is one change already: Her phone rings more often now.

"People do pick up the phone and call me. Before they only called if they couldn't get a hold of Bob," she joked.

Otherwise, life hasn't changed since last Wednesday. In recent years, Johnson has been focused on other pursuits, including his professional basketball franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats, and investing in hotels and financial service companies. He said he is also looking to buy a bank in Washington. He said after he retires he will continue to live in Washington and work out of an office in an adjacent suburb.

Johnson will remain BET's chairman until January, when Lee will become chairman as well as chief executive. That is when she expects to notice a difference as she is thrust more into the spotlight.

"It will be a lot more attention focused on me personally," she said. "BET is an iconic brand, especially in the African American community. And it's important who leads these companies."


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She's been running the show for the last 9 years and if anything it's gotten worse. Everything on the channel is a bootleg version of what is on MTV. Fatty Koo? College Hill? Give me a break. Anyone handing over the company to her is merely ensuring things stay the same. "Business as usual" as she and Viacom put it. Passing of the torch from one self-hater to another, as Massa smiles and looks on approvingly. Ugh Mad
Originally posted by Huey:
Originally posted by ThaWatcher:

Bootys Exposed Television

Nah, more like like :
B.E.T, Black Embarrassment Television

Btw, did anyone see CNN and had this African guy who was trying to make The African Channel for cable TV?

Your correct, it does stand for Black Embarrisment Television. If BET does not get it's act together, then it really needs to change it's name. It ain't right for it to be called black entertainment.

I did hear about a new African Channel coming, I did not hear it on CNN, though.
Here is an article on the launch of the "Africa Channel"

Breaking News

Africa Channel To Launch In August

By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/10/2005 2:19:00 PM

James Makawa, CEO of The Africa Channel, says he has a carriage deal with one of the top three MSO's and that the channel will launch in August.

The English-language channel will be a mix of travel, lifestyle and general news and entertainment--from soaps to reality--with magazine shows a prime driver, plus lots of music, says Makawa.

Although Makawa wouldn't identify the big deal, he told CNN Friday he has been in negotiations with Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, Charter.

Channel backers include former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young and NBA player Dikembe Mutombo.
An article I came people probably need to fade BET alltogether......

Back off, black brainiacs, demand makes BET bad
By Ben Wasserstein
Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York Magazine.

July 31, 2005

Day After day, Black Entertainment Television panders to its audience with a mix of crude music videos, cheesy infomercials, UPN repeats and few original shows. The network's rot was brought into sharp relief by the astonishing success of last month's "BET Awards '05," the highest-rated program in the network's history.

BET has never met the hopes or expectations of others. It was never a significant buyer of black entertainers' work and didn't carry socially relevant programming. As BET founder Robert Johnson said in 2001, "We were not running a popularity contest for Hollywood. We were not trying to be socially redeeming for black intellectuals. We were running a business. And we had the right to run our business the same way MTV runs its business or Comedy Central runs its business."

But Comedy Central, MTV (both, like BET, owned by Viacom) and other cable networks are nabbing viewers with pricey original programming. The justification for BET's cheap, woeful programming is eroding. According to Kagan Research, a media-specialist firm, BET's programming expenses as a percentage of revenue remains between 19% and 23%. The industry average is about 45%. Staying the course becomes a growing risk for BET. To keep parity, it needs to invest in itself.

None of this, however, should be seen as a bow to the black intelligentsia. Their prescription "” thoughtful, serious programming that addresses social issues facing blacks "” is naïve. TV is a business, and BET's few stabs at original entertainment shows "” "College Hill," a reality show about life at a black university; "Blowin' Up: Fatty Koo," a reality show about a struggling band; the makeover reality show "Remixed" "” have not been socially redemptive.

This month, veteran filmmaker Reginald Hudlin was hired as president of entertainment, and he told me, "Everyone knows there needs to be change at BET." So look for more original series, and a less-chilly relationship with black Hollywood. Make no mistake, however. BET is adapting because of market demands, not because it has a higher calling. And that will have to suffice.

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