By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007
It looks as though Black Entertainment Television is about to dial back the booty-and-rerun quotient.
The network's parent company, entertainment giant Viacom Inc., will increase BET's budget for original programming by 30 percent to 50 percent this year compared with last, and will continue to grow it at that pace in coming years, Viacom Chief Executive Philippe P. Dauman said during a meeting yesterday with Washington Post reporters and editors.
The expanded slate of original programming coincides with BET's launch of a home-entertainment division and new digital strategy under BET Chief Executive Debra L. Lee, said BET chief of staff Tom Reynolds.
Viacom bought the cable television network -- founded in 1980 by Washingtonian Robert L. Johnson -- for $3 billion in 2000. The network has drawn criticism for its lack of original programming, historically filling airtime with provocative hip-hop videos interspersed with repeats of such shows as "The Parkers," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and "In Living Color."
Dauman promised "at least 10 new shows this year" and said that BET seeks to expand across multiple media platforms to satisfy its predominantly black audience.
"African Americans over-consume all forms of media," Dauman said.
BET is developing a prime-time animation series called "Hannibal the Conqueror," based on the life of the ancient Carthaginian general and voiced by action star Vin Diesel, Reynolds said.
Another show in development is the drama "Wifey," with Queen Latifah as a co-executive producer. Latifah and Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard ("Hustle & Flow") appear in the pilot, Reynolds said. "Wifey" is slated to air next year on BET and Viacom cousin VH1, which shared production costs, Reynolds said.
Although music videos will continue to be a part of BET, Reynolds said, the prime-time lineup will be more balanced.
BET's recent original programming includes "College Hill," a reality series launched in 2004, and "Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown," a 2006 docudrama following the final free days of the rapper before serving a prison term for perjury.
BET hired Hollywood director Reginald Hudlin ("House Party") to become the network's entertainment president in 2005, banking on his Hollywood ties to help increase BET's programming.
In an August 2005 interview with Southern California public radio station KCRW, Hudlin called BET "stunningly profitable" and said it has "unbelievable growth potential."
The channel recently rebranded itself as BET Networks, and Dauman said yesterday that BET is looking for worldwide opportunities as well.
"The African American culture resonates in other parts of the world," he said.
Dauman took over Viacom after former chief executive Tom Freston was ousted last September. Viacom and CBS Corp. split in January 2006. Viacom stock slumped after the split while CBS stock grew.