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May 28, 2007
At BET, Fighting the Rerun
Last week, executives from Black Entertainment Television walked through the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, laying out the plans for the annual BET Music Awards on June 26. The broadcast has become the highest-rated award show on cable, topping the MTV Music Awards, ESPN's ESPY Awards and the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards.

This year's host is Mo'nique, a popular comedian who is the host of "Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School," a reality show that draws a large African-American audience. But "Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School" isn't on BET. Instead, it has become a big hit for VH1, a cable channel that, like BET, is owned by Viacom.

Mo'nique's presence on the BET podium illustrates one of the channel's persistent struggles. Despite being the first and certainly the largest African-American cable channel, BET has developed few of its own marketable stars and virtually no breakout programs. It relies instead on reruns, movies and music videos for the bulk of its lineup.

BET's chief executive, Debra L. Lee, has tried to reverse that trend, this year increasing the channel's production budget 50 percent and plunging into original programming with 16 new shows planned for the new season.

"What we have found over the years is that acquired and licensed programming has not done as well as we would have liked," Ms. Lee said. "It was very clear that we had to invest more in original programming."

Ms. Lee joined BET in 1986 as general counsel and vice president, working closely with its founder, Robert L. Johnson. She was named president and chief executive when he left the network in 2005. Although she did not have direct programming experience, the programming department had reported to her since 1995. A calm, businesslike executive, she quickly brought in a team to "take BET to the next level," she said in a recent interview at Viacom's Manhattan headquarters, where she commutes from BET's Washington offices.

Ms. Lee's attempts to remake BET come at time when all cable channels are contending with an increasingly tough landscape as the battle for market share among the mature networks intensifies. BET's ratings were strong in 2006 but tumbled in the first quarter of this year.

And while the channel has had some success with original series like "American Gangster" and "Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown," they have been overshadowed by some recent hits on other Viacom cable channels. These include Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show" and VH1's "Flavor of Love" and two spinoffs: "I Love New York" and "Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School."

The original "Flavor of Love," in which 20 women vied for the affections of the rapper Flavor Flav of the group Public Enemy, was an enormous hit for cable. The second season finale attracted 7.5 million viewers "” VH1's best rating ever "” and drew a 34 share among African-American viewers (meaning 34 percent of all African-Americans watching television during at that time were watching VH1).

BET, which is available to about 84 million homes, is still considered extremely profitable by analysts, although Viacom does not break out figures for its cable networks. Louis Carr, executive vice president for BET's broadcast media sales, said revenue grew last year but at a slower rate.

But BET has run into the same wall as many other cable channels. BET has succeeded, analysts said, on the basis of fees from cable operators and cable's growing piece of the advertising market. But the growth in fees has slowed as the industry matures, said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Sanford Bernstein.

"The days of double-digit affiliate revenue fee growth from cable systems are over," Mr. Nathanson said.

In response, cable channels have spent more on original programming to attract new viewers and possibly attract new revenue from licensing, DVD sales and other media, like the Web or cellphones.

"Networks need to own their programming so they can reap the revenues from those outlets," said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at Pali Research.

According to a 2005 Nielsen study, African-Americans watch more television on average than the overall population. That appetite for television raises the question of why BET's ratings are not higher.

"BET does not have the ratings it should have with 12 percent of the audience being black," said Leo Hindery, a partner in Intermedia Partners, which owns a majority stake in the Gospel Channel, a cable network. "It has never developed a soul of its own. I would do more sports than they are doing and I would stay with the youth audience."

Ms. Lee disagrees. "To say we don't have a soul of our own: I don't know what that means," she said, pointing out that the channel did carry black college football games and the ratings were not good.

"When you look at our shows that really work, we get a sizable percentage of the population. We are the No. 1 show in black households. We did a fund-raiser after Katrina and raised $113 million, so there was a strong connect to our programming."

To develop BET's new stable of shows, Ms. Lee turned to Reginald Hudlin, who made his name as the writer and director of movies like "House Party," "Boomerang" and "The Great White Hype." He joined BET a year ago with the goal of making it a "creative haven" for talent in the mode of Home Box Office.

For the new season, he is developing "Somebodies," a postcollege comedy based on a 2006 film, and "Baldwin Hills," a "Laguna Beach"-style documentary about rich teenagers in Los Angeles.

Mr. Hudlin has big plans. "I want every black person with a TV watching, and a lot of people with TVs who like black people," he said. "We want the black audience to start the day with BET and put the remote down at night without switching channels."

Mr. Hudlin is also betting that programming will help assuage critics of the channel, both African-American and white. Over the years, the network has been criticized for depending on music videos and other shows that present a narrow and sometimes violent view of African-American life.

Herman S. Gray, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the challenge for BET is to create cost-effective programs that address the complexity of African-American life.

"If the network becomes identified with eye candy, then the process of creating complex and subtle programming for the community will be stalled," Professor Gray said.

But it is facing increasing competition from traditional cable networks like USA and Lifetime and from smaller rival channels like TV One, whose major backers include Radio One, a radio company that aims at African-Americans, and Comcast.

TV One, which is in 40 million homes, aims at a somewhat older audience than BET. Although Comcast executives decline to be specific, the cost of starting a network is "north of $300 million," said Jeffrey Shell, president of Comcast's programming group. "We saw the power of the radio networks to promote the cable network in all its markets," he said.

He is diplomatic about the competition. "If you look at the African-American audience, there is room for several networks," he said.

Mr. Carr from BET is not so generous. "They are a nice sandwich shop," he said. "They serve a nice sandwich and a nice cup of soup. But if you look at just the facts, we are double in every major variable: distribution, ratings, revenues. We have a great family style menu."

As BET faces new competition and the realities of being a cable channel, it must continue to deal with the cultural undercurrents of being the face of black cable television. The network has long been a lightning rod for critics and it has been attacked over the years for glossing over some of hip-hop culture's rawer edges.

After Don Imus made a racial and sexist insult of the Rutgers women's basketball team in April, many critics pointed out that such language is common in rap. Ms. Lee said that the network would not have broadcast the particular phrase Mr. Imus used.

"We don't allow that kind of language in our music videos. What we air on BET is the clean version," she said, conceding that BET does permit other unflattering terms for women in the videos it shows. "The good thing about the Imus controversy is that it raised the issue," she said. "It makes us more conscious."

My thought? If she was quoted correctly and truly stated that it took the Imus controversy to "raise the issue" is sad. 7It appears in their insular world of broadcasting t&a, they haven't a clue that many Blacks
see their progamming as distasteful and the station as a huge disappointment. As a result they no longer even care to watch and be offended
nam myoho renge kyo
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Originally posted by mirahjay:
My thought? If she was quoted correctly and truly stated that it took the Imus controversy to "raise the issue" is sad. 7It appears in their insular world of broadcasting t&a, they haven't a clue that many Blacks
see their progamming as distasteful and the station as a huge disappointment. As a result they no longer even care to watch and be offended

appl tfro

My response was going to be that BET sucks!! and I never ever watch it anymore!!

But, your answer was much more eloquent! Smile so, I'll just say yeah
You know the more and more BET continues to go on this downward spiral of CONSTANT music videos, the 106 & park- teeny bopper programing, the more i am steadily disappointed. I try to support US, but it is getting harder and harder by the day. I say bring back Tavis, bring back a BLACK news program, a serious drama ( I like The Corner, but i realize an older audience may not), I want to see more comedy shows besides The Wayans brothers reruns, keep SOME of the video programming etc... The thing to do would be to find a way to mix something for the younger and older generations. I am however interested in seeing what they have in store for us with the new programming.

I shudder to think that people all over the world get their ownly exposure to black people through BET! sck
From another website whose name escapes me Big Grin

The Black Family Channel Folds

The Black Family Channel has folded, ending its broadcasting just a few weeks ago. A lack of distribution was cited as the cause for the shut down. The Black Family Channel was a joint venture involving several high profile African American men, including attorney Willie Gary, Evander Holyfield, and actor/director Robert Townsend. The network was a positive alternative to the often negative images of Black Americans promoted by BET and was one of only two major Black owned TV networks. The departure of BFC leaves TV One as the only major Black owned TV network and the only viable alternative to BET. TV One also shows positive content, although I don't know if it was as good as BFC.

Why is it that positive programs and positive networks about Black Americans always seem to fail? Is it a lack of Black support? I have noticed that Black Americans don't seem to throw as much support behind networks like BFC, which explicitly supported programming that reflected positive family values and wanted to position itself as an alternative to BET. Yet, Black support seemed to drift towards BET...and network that, in many cases, shows Black Americans in the poorest light possible.

I liked what Robert Townsend and others were trying to do with that network. BFC offered us a good opportunity to challenge BET. But the lack of support, and failure of cable providers to pick up the network across the country, doomed any plan to challenge BET. BET was likely a better advertising draw because it is a much more established brand.

I had the network on my cable system for a short time, and the programming was awesome. This was a channel that you could actually watch without cringing about language or some sort of minstrel imagery. Unfortunately (if I recall correctly) the network was eventually dropped from the cable system. I also had TV One. It is also a positive network, at least it is when compared with BET. Hopefully TV One will last a lot longer than BFC.
Sorry to learn that BFC went under. I remember catching a few good programs on that station when it was carried by the system I had. I watch very little BET. It's programming is very unsatisfactory. I will turn 106 & Park on every now and then if someone I like is going to be on it or if someone tells me I need to hear the new such and such song (I don't listen to the radio where I am so my only knowledge of who's hot comes from my limited video viewing). I also watch College Hill pretty faithfully, but that's about it.

I much prefer TVOne, particularly in the afternoons with Roc, 227, Amen, and Good Times and all those old shows. I Married A Baller is pretty good too. Of course no network can go wrong when they show "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" a couple times.appl

I'd love to see BET do a complete overhall of it's programming and represent Black entertainment evenly. Lee talks a good game sometimes, but I don't get the feeling it will ever really happen. The powers that be are convinced BET's bread is buttered by videos, most of which aren't very good.
I'm unable to see TVone in my area, but I did watch the Black Family Channel until it went off air. I am sorry to see it go as well


If there is Unavision, Galavision, and myriad spanish language pay per view channels

Why can't we have a

and a Black Family Channel
and a TVone

all at the same time?

let BET focus on music and 106 and park
and the others develop an adult following

We need them all
fro C'mon y'all...Remember when Bill Cosby tried to buy NBC? ...Huh? Same thing. Cuz Mass Media [television, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc] is the white man's source to continue to spread "negative" propaganda about "us" anytime, anywhere to whomever he wants. And in this media war as long as blacks keep "selling out" every chance they get to make it RIGHT for their "peeps"....this is going to continue to happen. It's about having and being committed to Black pride. We don't have that so.....the worldwide warped image of black people will continue to remain in white man's power. Cuz to him it's important to focus the "hate" on the slave instead of the slave master. Smart fro
From where I'm from, the only way I can get TV One is if I get it either satellite or digital cable. The only BET new show that I like watching is that new sports show called "Ballers" which is basically a rip-off of "The Best Damn Sports Show".

At least BET J is okay. They play 80s videos, and also reruns of "Caribbean Rhythms" featuring the very sexy Rachel Stuart.
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