It’s the baby of entertainment industry awards shows. This Sunday, the BET Awards turn 10 years old in ‘10, as the network itself celebrates its 30th year.
The show got booted into adulthood last year, when just three days before it was scheduled, Michael Jackson unexpectedly died, sending shock waves throughout the world. Perhaps it was fated to be the first major nationally televised awards show to pay tribute to the pop legend, as Jackson himself had strong ties to Black Entertainment Television — and was considered part of the “family” the network likes to foster with its staff and talent.
“It was just devastating,” remembers BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee of Jackson’s death. She was in the middle of a speech at DirecTV in Los Angeles when she got the news. “Everyone worked around the clock, knowing how important it was to the audience to make it a special tribute. Michael had always been very good to BET, having his videos released to BET and MTV at the same time, and he was the first honoree at our Walk of Fame. He was a big fan of BET, and it was important for us to do the tribute right.”
It was a night to remember, with Janet Jackson taking the stage in her first public appearance since her brother’s untimely passing. “She called us, knowing this would be the place fans would come for comfort,” says Stephen Hill, BET’s president of specials and music programming, who EPs the show with Lynne Harris-Taylor and production partner Cossette Productions. He and his team spearheaded the frenzied activity to revamp the entire program to make it a celebration of Jackson’s life and career by the top artists in the business.
Not surprisingly, the show garnered its best ratings ever, with about 10.7 million viewers — and Hill has his work cut out for him this time around to match last year’s epic broadcast.
Sunday’s program features not only a popular Queen and a celebrated Prince, but a King and a Princess. Queen Latifah hosts the show for the first time — not that she hasn’t been asked before. The artist known once again as Prince gets the Lifetime Achievement Award for his legendary, iconic career — and the tribute to him promises to be a blockbuster. King of the South TI is performing, as is Princess Nicki Minaj. And let’s not leave out Eminem, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, Usher, T-Pain, Drake, Diddy-Dirty Money and Rick Ross.
Assuredly, all eyes will be on Kanye West as he makes his first awards show appearance since the debacle that was his notorious interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV VMAs last year. Will she be waiting in the wings to exact some payback in West’s direction? Hill won’t say, but promises a lot of surprises.
What BET brings to the awards show table is not only a celebration of music, but honoring the best of African American culture in entertainment and athletics, as well as singling out people who have made a difference in their communities. Six-time Grammy Award-winning artist and philanthropist John Legend will receive this year’s Humanitarian Award for his work to end poverty through education. Long after the mainstream media spotlight has dimmed, there will also be recognition of the continuing plight of the people of Haiti, in the wake of the devastating earthquake.
“It’s as much a family reunion and gathering as it is an awards show,” says Hill. “The cousins get together and show off in a dance competition, bringing their best and brightest productions. They know we embrace their art and desire to show off. It’s a cool place for surprises — and to get the best entertainment and look back to yesterday.”
Achievements will be recognized in 19 categories. Jay-Z leads the pack with five individual nominations for Best Male Hip Hop Artist, Best Collaboration, Video of the Year (two nominations) and Viewer’s Choice. Following with four nods each are Beyonce (Best Female R&B Artist, Best Collaboration, Video of the Year, Viewer’s Choice), Alicia Keys (Best Female R&B Artist, Best Collaboration, Video of the Year, Viewer’s Choice), Trey Songz (Best Male R&B Artist, Best Collaboration (two nominations), Viewer’s Choice) and Melanie Fiona (Best Female R&B Artist, Best New Artist, Video of the Year, Centric Award).
Drake scored three individual nominations, as did Young Money. Other multiple nominees include Rihanna, Fabolous, Nicki Minaj, B.O.B., Maxwell and Monica. Justin Bieber fever will heat up the house at the Shrine Auditorium, as the teen heartthrob scored a nod for the new “Fandemonium” award. He’s competing against Minaj, Songz and Chris Brown.
The Subway Sportsman of the Year Award promises a lot of drama, with LeBron James pitted against Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Carmelo Anthony and Usain Bolt. On the distaff side, it’s both of the tennis superstar Williams sisters up against Candace Parker, Vanessa James and Tamika Catchings for the hardware.
Women vying for the Best Actress trophy are Gabourey Sidibe, Zoe Saldana, Mo’Nique, Taraji P. Henson and Regina King. Either Denzel Washington, last year’s host Jamie Foxx, Quinton Aaron, Idris Elba or Don Cheadle will take home the Best Actor award.
“We’ve established a reputation as one of the best shows out there,” says Lee. “The audience continues to grow, people who love African American culture and music has allowed to grow. Our goal is to keep growing.”
The show has come a long way since its inception ten years ago, when BET brass decided enter the fray of awards shows that attract a similar audience, including the Grammys, the MTV Awards and the Soul Train Awards.
“The productions have gotten more elaborate, the pairings of artists has gotten better,” says Lee. That will be reflected in the tribute to Prince, says Hill, who expects the unexpected. “He’s nothing less than changed music and the perception of how black men play instruments. He’s the most emotional singer in more genres than anybody. He is music. We are honored beyond belief that he will appear,” he told me.
The Prince tribute will surely take its place among top moments in BET Awards history, like Michael Jackson's surprise appearance during James Brown's tribute, Rick James in his final duet with Teena Marie and Will Smith presenting Muhammad Ali with the first-ever Humanitarian Award.
(The BET Awards air at 8 ET/PT, 7 Central Sunday June 27 on BET.)