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BET’s Big Plans: New Networks, More Originals

7/20/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

Things certainly aren’t boring these days at Black Entertainment Television.

As the service examines potential new network launches and rolls out the most-ambitious original programming lineup in its 27-year history, BET has also come under fire recently for perpetuating African-American stereotypes with the upcoming show Hot Ghetto Mess.

BET president Debra Lee told Multichannel News at the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour here that the network is exploring the possibility of launching several new channels and applications as early as next year.

Lee is looking to create several channels over the next year, whether in the form of linear cable channels, video-on-demand services or broadband-video channels, which would complement the 85 million-subscriber BET network and its sister 26 million-subscriber BET J service. She would not detail anything more specific.

Potential offerings could include family, gospel and women’s channels, according to executives close to the company.

MOMENTUM BUILDS

Lee said the momentum the network is building through its lineup of original reality and scripted fare will help make it easier to launch the new services. At its July 15 TCA presentation, BET announced several new fall shows, including its first animated scripted-comedy show, BUFU; American Idol-like gospel competition series Sunday Best; and town-hall news program Hip Hop vs. America, which will take a close look at the merits and faults of the hip-hop community.

BET is also poised to launch a scripted series in 2008, Somebodies, about a group of 20-something “slackers” caught between graduating college and finding a career. A second scripted series, Wifey — co-produced with VH1 — is also in development and could debut later this year.

“I want BET Networks to be the frontier for great original content whether it’s for mature adult African-Americans, kids or women,” Lee said. “So if we can create more channels that work with that strategy, then [cable operators] should trust enough to know that we’re going to do that and do it well.”

Indeed, the network is quickly shedding its image as a repository for hip-hop and R&B music videos. BET Entertainment president Reginald Hudlin said the network will soon feature programming for virtually all demos and tastes within the African-American community.

“When you look at what we’re doing in the continuum with BUFU, Hip Hop vs. America, Meet The Faith — there is a clear intent to show that BET is addressing the real issues confronting Black America,” Hudlin said. “You may like or dislike a particular show we’re broadcasting, but my goal is that there is something on BET that you like.”

AN INTERNET 'MESS’

That is certainly true in the case of BET’s upcoming reality series Hot Ghetto Mess, which has come under fire from Internet groups even though the show isn’t scheduled to air until July 25.

Several blogger sites, such as WhatAboutOurDaughters.com, have criticized BET for basing the half-hour, user-generated video clip show on a Web site of the same name that portrays negative and demeaning images of African-Americans. At least two companies have already pulled their commercials from the show, although the network would not identify the advertisers.

Hudlin admitted to Multichannel News that he was caught off guard by the “presumptuous” reactions from critics of the show, even though most of them have yet to see it.

“I’m very anxious for the show to debut — every time we’ve shown it to an audience, we’ve been encouraged by the fact that the people watching completely got it, and it encouraged discussion about the images of black people and what is considered negative or mean [-spirited],” Hudlin said.

“So if the show can do that in households all over America, it would be worth the effort,” he added.

For Hudlin, ratings aren’t the only barometer of success for his shows.

“If you obsess over ratings you kill yourself,” Hudlin said. “We just want to make great shows and if you keep making quality shows, the ratings will come.”

During the second quarter, BET’s 0.6 primetime-household rating was flat compared to the same period in 2006.

September