As controversy swirls over diversity in Hollywood – to boycott or not to boycott the Oscars? – Viacom-owned BET, created in 1980 as Black Entertainment Television to give African Americans a place on TV where they can see themselves consistently represented, plows ahead with its mission. The home of the BET Awards since 2001, the net recently announced a partnership with the American Black Film Festival to produce the 2016 ABFF Awards. President of Programming Stephen Hill talked to Cynopsis about why networks like BET remain so relevant.
Cynopsis: Why is it important to have a network that celebrates Black achievement? Does the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees prove the point?
Hill: It’s important to have a network to celebrate Black achievement because if we don’t, who will…consistently and honestly? We are an inclusive channel that unapologetically exists to celebrate and support Black culture for lovers of Black culture…whoever you might be. And since we are a top 20 cable network among all adults 18-49, there’s clearly an audience for it as well.
The lack of diversity among the Oscars proves one point: that in assessing the multitude of talent in the industry, the voting body of the Academy didn’t find any performances from non-white performers in their top 5 of any category. And that’s why there’s such a focus on changing the make-up of that body. But BET won’t be waiting for that change before we celebrate our achievements.
Cynopsis: Which is why BET Networks partnered with the American Black Film Festival to produce the 2016 ABFF Awards?
Hill: It’s clear that there’s a need for this show. BET is very excited to be partnering with Jeff Friday and the ABBF to present A Celebration of Hollywood; we will proudly acknowledge performances and achievements of African-Americans on screen from this past year. We’ll also give special honor and recognition to artists that have thrilled us during their highly acclaimed careers. 2015 was ripe with tremendous and inspiring performances by African-Americans and we are beyond thrilled to be the ones to recognize them with class and admiration.
Cynopsis: Just six months ago, a reporter for the LA Times said of the BET Awards, “For a community that has long felt like its creative forces are marginalized when it comes to mainstream recognition and being considered for major awards, this show is a heaven.” Obviously you’d agree. Do you get this kind of feedback from viewers, too?
Hill: We absolutely feel the love from viewers for all of our programming, and especially for the BET Awards. A lot of people work very hard to make The BET Awards the best awards show on television… period. The reason: African-American talent deserves and fuels such a show and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the best show is on BET.
The BET Awards is the #1 program in Cable TV history with Black viewers and has been the #1 Award Show on Cable TV with Black viewers for 13 straight years. It consistently ranks as one of the top 3 award shows on all of cable. It’s also one of the most social shows on TV, with viewers setting social media records in the tens of millions with comments on Twitter and other platforms.
Cynopsis: When it comes to scripted television, why is it important for African Americans (or any under-recognized group) to see themselves and their culture represented onscreen?
Hill: It’s not just under-recognized groups to whom representation is important; it’s everyone. If you believe that TV is a powerful medium, then it’s important for everyone to see their culture on-screen. While there are certain issues that all can relate to, there are some issues that are region-specific, gender-specific and race-specific. Being Mary Jane has been so important in the canon of African-American television because it unabashedly deals with issues concerning Black women. In return, scores of our audience have responded positively to finally having a TV character that is relatable and identifiable.
It’s equally important for people to see and experience authentic looks into other cultures than their own as well, and I think that’s a point that many fail to receive.
Cynopsis: The popularity of shows like Empire and Scandal should only hasten the inclusion of more lead characters of color on television. Will that help or hurt BET?
Hill: It’s exciting that diversity is gaining popularity in television, and it’s smart business to target the audience that’s consuming the most television. We’ve built an incredible connection with the audience for more than 35 years, and they continue to show us the love by making us their top choice. These new shows are creating even more opportunities for talent in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and that’s good for the entire industry. We’re happy to see more diversity in lead roles, and are thrilled that we get to discover new talent and continue to work with stars who have become a part of the BET family, like Taraji P. Henson, who hosted BET’s Celebration of Gospel.
Cynopsis: What is BET’s goal for 2016?
Hill: Our audience is passionate about the brand, so we plan to continue to be there for them and find new, exciting ways to interact with them in a way that no other brand can. Fans were happy to see Brandy back on BET as the star in our new comedy Zoe Ever After. They were also thrilled to hear that we’re bringing back Being Mary Jane for Season 4 and Real Husbands of Hollywood for Season 5. We’re creating more originals featuring big names, more digital content that engages our audience across multiple screens, and we have many more immersive brand experiences in the works. So stay tuned!
The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at Lynn@Cynopsis.com.