With a packed programming schedule, more platforms and the best year over year growth among cable networks in 1Q16 among A18-49 viewers, BET Networks has a big story to tell this Upfront season. Chairman and CEO Debra Lee shares it with Cynopsis.
Cynopsis: What’s BET’s pitch this Upfront season?
Debra Lee: We’re still number one with the audience everyone wants. For 15 straight years we’re been the number one media brand for African Americans, we’ve had the number one awards show for African Americans. That’s where we start, but the theme of our Upfront is “The Power of More.” This year we’re promising to bring our audience more of everything, more premium programming, more specials. We’re announcing more platforms, more talent, more engagement. We’ve had great relationships with advertisers over the years and we’re giving them more options and more programming. We intend on continuing to win with our audience because they know that the African American audience is our main priority every day, 365 days a year. We have a great story to tell.
Cynopsis: What new programming are you most excited about?
Lee: That’s like saying which child you like best! But I’m very excited about our scripted programming. We have a show called The Yard, starring Anika Noni Rose, about life on a historically black college campus. I’m very excited about new one hour dramedy Benched, about a judge who’s single and his life as a bachelor. We have police drama Rebel, which we’re doing with John Singleton and Dallas Jackson. We have an anthology series, Tales, that’s going to take stories from popular songs and turn them into 60-minute scripted shows, and we have Comedy Getdown, about comedians you know, everyone from Cedric the Entertainer to DL Hughley, George Lopez, Charlie Murphy and Eddie Griffin. And we have great reality coming up too – Gary Owen is a white comedian married to a black woman, and we have a show about his family that is going to be hysterical. And we have two mini-series coming up, one on New Edition, which has gotten a good reception, and we have one on Nelson Mandela called Madiba that’s being directed by Kevin Hooks and stars Laurence Fishburne. It’s an incredible amount of programming. I’m excited about the number of shows, but also the quality of the producers and directors we’re working with, as well as the talent.
Cynopsis: Is there a show that’s a big swing?
Lee: The New Edition mini-series – it’s going to follow their lives from when they got started to present day, and each one of them has interesting stories, not to mention Bobby Brown’s story with Whitney Houston. You have one group of actors when they were young, then you have another group as they become older. So this is a big swing for us. But I think our audience is going to be really excited about it.
Cynopsis: What has advertiser reaction been?
Lee: So far it’s been amazing. They’re glad to see us coming out with new scripted programming –
Being Mary Jane and Real Husbands of Hollywood both have worked so well for us. The reaction of advertisers has been especially great for Centric, our network that’s targeted to African-American women. We have two new shows coming up on Centric – one is Monica Morton, a reality show about a female private detective, and another called Queen Bee, about women entrepreneurs. We’re very proud of Centric and advertisers have been particularly interested in that. A lot of networks are dabbling in shows targeting African American women, but a few years ago we said, “Let’s own it, and just say we’re the first network for African American women,” and advertisers have been really excited about that.
Cynopsis: What makes BET stand out from the pack?
Lee: The fact that we target this audience 24 hours a day every day, each year. The fact that we have more research and knowledge about this audience than anyone else. We know and love this audience, it’s what we’re all about. Our authenticity really sets us apart. We’ve been doing this for 36 years, and it’s core to our being. We have a very loyal audience – even if they leave us for other shows, they always come back. So we just have to continue to give them the high quality programming that they want. It’s really important. We found that out years ago when I greenlit The Game, which we took over from The CW. The night we premiered that show after it had been off the air for two years, we got 7.7 million viewers. That was evidence to me right there that if you give our audience high quality programming, they will show up.
Cynopsis: How has the BET audience changed over the years?
Lee: At times we get older, and we make a concerted effort to make it younger again. You have to keep reinventing yourself with every new generation. There are some people who’ve grown up on BET and are now in their 40s and 50s, and they’ve been watching BET forever, but we’ve also got to appeal to their children. Our average age now is in the mid- and low-30s. Trying to appeal to a real young crowd alienates the older crowd, so we try to have a little bit of something for everyone. On Sunday we have more family-oriented, gospel programming.
Because we were the only network targeting African Americans for so long we had this challenge of being all things to all people. That’s impossible, but we’ve found our rhythm in terms of trying to be relevant to young people but keep the more mature audience at the same time.
Cynopsis: Are there categories you hope to break this season?
Lee: We’re always looking for new areas to grow. Packaged goods and automotive have always been good areas for us, QSRs and soft drinks. But we’re trying to get more in the tech area and financial services.
Cynopsis: What about film advertising?
Lee: Movies are huge for us, always have been. We’re trying to expand in the movie area. We need to convince studios that our audience goes to non-African American movies. Any time there’s an African American movie it’s a pretty easy sell, but our audience are great movie-goers, and they go to see everything. That’s an ongoing education we have to provide. If it’s Jungle Book or SpongeBob, they need to spend as much with us as they do with other networks because our kids are going to go see those movies just like everyone else. We’ve done a lot of research into different areas to show advertisers that their preconceptions about the African American audience are not necessarily true.
Cynopsis: Has any of that research come as a surprise to you?
Lee: A couple of years ago the research we did in the digital space, and how involved our audience is in digital products, streaming services, Twitter, Facebook, was surprising. Just how much time our audience spends on digital – we realized we needed to get BET.com and BET digital more active and put more programming on those sites. And that’s worked well for us. Growing digital is important to us, and advertisers are becoming more interested in it.
Cynopsis: What is your strategy regarding sponsors and brand integration?
Lee: We’ll be doing more of that since we have more original programming. With Madiba we’re looking for one or two advertisers to sponsor the series, since we feel it’s important to have limited commercials. We’ve done a lot of that recently on the air, shown movies with limited commercial interruptions. The more we can partner with sponsors, get them in early and make these programs exclusive, the better the viewing experience it is. As far as brand integrations, with the BET Awards we do a three-day festival, the BET Experience. We take over the convention center, we have three nights of concerts at Staples Center and late night parties. We have the Sprite celebrity basketball tournament, activations by Coca-Cola. It’s a great way for advertisers to really touch our audience.
Cynopsis: Any final words?
Lee: When I became CEO ten years ago, I made a promise to our audience that we would do more scripted programming, more original programming. I’ve kept that promise and our audience sees the difference. They’re excited about the kinds of stories we’re telling, and that we’re reflecting their experiences and providing programming that’s uplifting and entertaining. I’m proud of where we are. My programming team and marketing team have been working really hard, and we’re just in a really great place. It’s an exciting time for BET Networks.