Looking Beyond Small Screen

Jun 5, 2006  •  Post A Comment

BET is getting theatrical.

The Viacom-owned cable network, which is part of MTV Networks, is launching a theatrical film department much like the one MTV has to expand its brand beyond the small screen. The network is also launching a home video department to market and distribute its programming on DVD.

The moves come as President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin celebrates his one-year anniversary on the job.

Thus far, Mr. Hudlin has presided over the highest-rated quarter in the network’s history. Two months ago he announced an extensive upfront slate packed with reality and documentary programming.

In addition, the network is preparing to announce two summertime countdown specials, “The 25 Hottest Bodies” and “Money, Power and Respect: The Top 25.”

The new departments and programming are among Mr. Hudlin’s efforts to grow an audience for a channel that boasts fantastic penetration (80 million homes) and a strong brand (black programming) but average ratings (ranked 27th among basic cable nets in prime time for 2005).

One thing that may have held the network back from broad ratings success is its longtime, arguably incongruous mix of hip-hop music videos and religious/gospel programming.

Considering BET’s lineup to this point, the network’s recent reality-driven success may appear an easy victory. But Mr. Hudlin said the channel’s newfound viewership is far from predetermined.

“Well, you can always fail,” he said. “A win’s a win. I look to my left, to my right and I see [other networks] failing. And it’s not like I’ve ever done this job before.”

This is true. Mr. Hudlin is a former film and television producer whose credits include “House Party” and “The Boondocks.” BET President Debra Lee tapped him for the newly created entertainment president post last June. Thus far, he has approached the network’s programming challenge partly by ordering BET takes on popular cable formats.

The “Top 25” shows are similar to countdown shows on E! and VH1. An upcoming mixed-martial-arts fighting show is like Ultimate Fighting on Spike. And celebrity reality shows-this season’s “Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown” and upcoming shows on Vince Young and DMX-are like shows on just about every other cable network.

But Mr. Hudlin said he’s not doing, as he put it, “black-faced shows, where there’s no difference between this show and shows on other networks except that ours is black.”

“We look to find enough points of difference to make them shows you have to watch on BET,” he said.

Such programming sensitivities are a problem unique to only a few networks. When CMT or Bravo announces its slate, news reporters don’t quote college academics and viewers lamenting the programming decisions as unsuitable-which is exactly what Mr. Hudlin faced when detractors objected to his upcoming documentary series “American Gangster.”

To Mr. Hudlin, such criticism indicates the power of the BET brand.

“They feel like they own BET,” he said of the critics. “If they’re criticizing you it’s because they care. I would rather have intense scrutiny than indifference.”

A Kagan Research analyst expressed confidence in the network, predicting a 10 percent increase in the channel’s net advertising revenue next year-on par with fellow MTV Networks MTV and VH1.

But in terms of advertising revenue per subscriber, BET’s profile is below two of Viacom’s three other music channels. Its per-subscriber revenue average is 61 percent higher than the industry average, compared with MTV (317 percent higher than the average), VH1 (75 percent higher) and CMT (38 percent lower).