Lott Coup Won't Save 'BET Tonight'

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Black Entertainment Television's BET Tonight With Ed Gordon scored a coup with its Dec. 16 interview of besieged U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), but it's not likely to help save the public-affairs program.

The widely publicized show generated a 0.9 Nielsen Media Research rating, nearly doubling the network's November 2002 primetime average of 0.5.

The Senate majority leader appeared on the show to apologize for — and to further explain — comments he made Dec. 5, at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). At the gathering, Lott suggested that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had prevailed in his 1948 presidential campaign, in which he ran on a platform that supported racial segregation.

BET COO Debra Lee said she was happy with the show's performance, although she questioned whether more people actually watched the show than Nielsen had reported.

"I was surprised — it was up from what we usually do during that time slot, but with as many people in America who were talking about it, I think Nielsen under-measured the audience for it," she said. "I'm happy. I just don't believe it's right."

Despite the show's strong performance, Lee said the network isn't reconsidering its decision to cancel BET Tonight
at the end of the month.

Two weeks ago, as part of an "organizational restructuring," BET announced it would cancel BET Tonight, as well as such other public-affairs shows as Lead Story
and Teen Summit, in an effort to become more aggressive in acquiring syndicated programming and creating joint programming ventures.

The decision drew criticism from BET viewers and some African-American leaders, who said the network was eliminating the few shows on television that offered news analysis and informational programming that related to the black audience.

News specials seen

But Lee said BET was losing $4 million a year on the shows, which helped prompt the network's move. She added that BET would continue to air its daily news program, BET Nightly News
— a joint production venture with CBS News — and would look to create news specials and town forums when issues present themselves.

"We have a terrific news organization in place and we still have the BET Nightly News
telecast," Lee said. "We're trying to address the concerns of our audiences in general, including more improved programming, while continuing to do news."

Lee would not reveal any specific programming acquisitions or original programming developments, but said the network would make some announcements next month.

She also confirmed that the network is talking to a number of its fellow Viacom Inc.-owned services about exploring potential programming acquisitions or repurposing arrangements. A number of shows that appeal to an African-American audience — such as the Paramount Network Television-produced Girlfriends
and One on One, as well as Showtime's Soul Food
—could find their way onto BET in the near future.

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