Healing Powers of the New Bet

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

They came as if to Lourdes. Afflicted with a need to break through and crippled by a lack of access, they were fevered with hope they’d hear something different, something that would open a door.

An eager crowd of independent producers, directors, actors and writers gathered last month at the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles for the opportunity to meet BET development executives. The 75 to 100 people came to sell themselves and not be sold a song and dance.

The session was organized as part of the 2006 Pan-African Film Festival. The fact that a cable TV-related meeting had been set up amid a film festival was just one sign this wasn’t going to be business as usual. Another sign was the panelists. The network sent forth its A team to spread the word of the new BET: Nina Henderson Moore, executive VP of news and public affairs; Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, VP of development; Stephen Hill, executive VP of music programming; and Byron Phillips, executive VP of entertainment.

“We’re revamping BET head to toe,” Mr. Phillips declared. “You won’t even recognize the channel. This is the wild, wild West.”

BET boasted of bigger production budgets, better production values-especially for its popular “College Hill,” a reality series set on a university campus, which started its third season March 2. “We’re developing an entire original slate of prime-time programming over the next two to three years,” Mr. Phillips said. That slate includes new programs for fringe and late-night.

The infusion of energy is across all departments. Ms. Henderson Moore said that Reginald Hudlin, the new president of entertainment at the network, wants BET to “make our news more entertaining and our programming more informative.”

BET has been excoriated in the past for its lack of innovation. But the network has staffed up, which has helped give it the wherewithal to develop programming. “The difference between then and now is we have execs to handle [series development], so things are happening faster,” Ms. Henderson Moore said. To create a lineup of fresh, exciting programming, the panelists said, BET is open to pitches and wants to “find real talent,” Mr. Phillips said. He acknowledged that BET has “to continually reach out or you’re going to miss something your competition will find.”

It was all just the kind of news the crowd had come to hear. The only downer was BET’s new emphasis on a target audience of 18- to 34-year-old viewers, a bit of news the experienced audience-at least half of which was not in the 18 to 34 demo-seemed to shrug off with a we’ll-just-see-about-that attitude. These people had come for the cure and weren’t going to let a wee side issue dampen their zeal. They had listened politely to BET’s pitch and now it was time for them to make theirs.

Despite the moderator’s repeated requests that people not continue to ask questions about program development, one person after another got up, rolled off the highlights of his or her resume and asked the panelists how exactly, how precisely could he or she get the reel, headshot, script, etc., directly to them.

The exhibition of self-promotion was shameless-and effective. The executives may have hoped to get away with their rah-rah pronouncements, but the crowd soon wore them down. The execs tried to deflect demands with standard talk of accepting only those materials submitted through an agent or a manager; by the end of the session, the execs were giving out their office telephone numbers and nearly promising to speak to anyone who showed up at their door.

I came away with two overriding impressions that day: 1) There is a large amount of passionate creativity out there going unrecognized. Many people of color are using their own resources, financial and otherwise, to explore ideas, write scripts and tape pilots for projects that may never be produced by a network or seen by a TV audience; and 2) There is a great need for BET to deliver on its promises, to step up where mainstream networks have stepped back.

A lot is riding on what BET does over the next couple of years. A whole world of people is putting its trust in BET programming. The expectations are extremely high, perhaps even unrealistic. But if BET can achieve even half of what it said it intends to accomplish, that will be more progress than has been seen in a very long time.