January 10, 2009 2:22 PM
The election of Barack Obama is very much on the minds of the people at BET and its viewers.
“This is a historic time,” said BET CEO Debra Lee, speaking at a Saturday session of the Television Critics Association's Winter Press Tour at the Universal Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.
BET will be covering the inauguration of Mr. Obama and airing two specials, “King to Obama,” looking at the impact the slain civil rights leader had on the president-elect, and “The Obama Effect,” in which a cross-section of African-Americans of different ages and backgrounds “reflect on how Obama’s rise has moved them,” Ms. Lee said.
BET also will be hosting an inaugural ball.
“We want to share this moment with our audience and tell the story of a dream realized,” Ms. Lee said, adding, “a dream I never thought would come true.”
The main thrust of the session was to promote BET’s new series “Harlem Heights,” a reality show following a group of young college-educated professionals living in the New York neighborhood.
One scene in the series shows the characters reacting to Mr. Obama’s election, but that wasn’t designed to be part of the storyline. The series was acquired by BET before Mr. Obama became the nominee of the Democratic party.
“None of us expected the election to be so meaningful to us and the people in Harlem,” said Loretha Jones, president for entertainment at BET. “We happened to be with these people on Election Night. And you saw their reaction to the election.”
It also was acquired before Ms. Jones joined the network.
Ms. Jones said that since joining BET last year, she has enjoyed “a pretty smooth transition” and that “it’s been very easy for me to get inspired about what BET has in store.”
Unlike many reality shows that throw strangers together in a house, some members of the cast of “Harlem Heights” knew the show's producer and one another before production started.
One participant, in fact, was assistant to MTV News chief David Sirulnick.
“They all knew each other. We were looking for that special quality. They’re a crop of young African Americans who are that new Harlem renaissance,” said Randolph Sturrup, one of the show’s creators and producers.
“I haven’t seen people like this on TV since ‘The Cosby Show,’” said executive producer and creator Kurt Williamson.
Ms. Jones said the show is not designed to be a BET version of “The Hills.” And while it has high production values, it is not scripted.
“This show is not ‘The Hills,” she said. “The production values, which I find to be a positive, allow us to capture the beauty of Harlem in a way we haven't seen before.”