Pasadena, Calif. -- Since his arrival one year ago, Black Entertainment Television president of entertainment Reginald Hudlin has accomplished many things.
His mix of new original reality programming and unique specials has helped the network to achieve record ratings performances among African-American households.
But according to BET Networks chairman and CEO Debra Lee, one of his greatest feats took place at BET's Television Critics Association Tour presentation here. Hudlin's lineup of upcoming original reality programming may have finally convinced TV writers that there's more to BET than just music videos.
"This is what I wanted ... to have a TCA presentation that was all about programming and not what's your competition doing or why aren't you doing this or that," she said. "It was all about the programming."
Whereas in years past, BET has had to field arguably legitimate questions from TV scribes about its heavy reliance on music-video programming and impending competition from upstart networks like TV One and Black Family Channel, this year's questions were pointed exclusively at the network's original reality series like Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is, profiling the up-and-coming rhythm-and-blues star, and Next Level: Vince Young,which follows the life of the Texas Longhorns quarterback as he moves on to the pros.
Such programming is slowly helping the network to build an image as a home for quality original fare.
With the blessings of parent company Viacom, Lee said the network has increased its original-programming budget by 40%-50% over the past year, although she would not provide specific figures. "We were able to show Viacom our strategy and that we needed more investment to increase the production value of what we put on the air," she added.
And that investment certainly translated into increased viewership for the network. While its 0.6 primetime household rating was flat during the second quarter of 2006, its 0.74 primetime rating for the 2005-06 season (Oct. 3, 2005-June 29, 2006) is up 9% over the same period in 2004-05.
Much of the gain can be attributed to the success of several Hudlin-developed original series such as Lil Kim: Countdown to Lockdown,which averaged a network series record 1.3 million viewers during its six-episode run, which ended this past April, as well as the network's June BET Awards show, which generated 6.6 million viewers -- on par with last year's record setting performance.
This year's show -- which featured performances from Cole, as well as Prince -- also drew an all time African-American cable-audience rating of 31.94, according to BET.
Still, Hudlin said, viewers haven't seen anything yet. "We're really just getting started," said the famed filmmaker, who produced such films as House Party and Boomerang and served as executive producer of Cartoon Network's successful TheBoondocks animated series.
Hudlin added that the network is planning to create at launch at least one scripted series as early as next year, as well as handful of original movies. BET is also exploring the field of animation, and it could green-light a show for air in late 2007 or early 2008.
Hudlin said the network is also looking at developing proprietary programming for its BET Blast broadband-video Internet site for a potential 2006 launch, although he would not reveal specific projects.
"We're going to flip the script so hard in 2007 that people will be shocked as to what we'll do going forward," he added.
The network successfully flipped the script for TV critics here. With Cole on stage along with Quincy Jones III, producer of BET original celebrity-rivalry reality series Beef, and National Basketball Association star Doug Christie and wife Jackie, who will star in sister BET J network's new reality series, Christies Committed, the focus was squarely on what BET is doing now and not about what it could be or should be doing.
Time will tell if Hudlin's creative vision can keep viewers' eyes on BET’s programming, as well.