At 27, BET Tries Some Original New Moves editor Kim Osorio, left, rapper Nelly and writer Michael Eric Dyson appear on BET's editor Kim Osorio, left, rapper Nelly and writer Michael Eric Dyson appear on BET's "Hip Hop vs. America," a three-part special examining the music culture and its effects. (Bet Photos)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Black Entertainment Television is 27 years old -- old enough, its top executives say, to start acting all grown up.

The Washington-based cable network that established itself with music videos featuring booty-shaking women and gangsta-rapping thugs is starting to do what grown-up TV networks do: produce its own original series. This season, BET will introduce 16 new series, a commitment that the network's top programmer, Reginald Hudlin, dramatically describes as "the largest aggregation of original programming about black life in television history."

BET's new maturity will be on display tonight, with the launch of "Hip Hop vs. America," a three-part special examining the state of, and issues surrounding, hip-hop culture. The special brings together some of the people who've helped BET get rich over the years -- rappers such as Nelly, Mike Jones and Chuck D -- and some of the people (from academia and the clergy) who've heaped damnation on BET for it.

Ironically, the show comes amid protests this month at the District home of BET chief executive Debra Lee over the network's depictions of sex and violence.

Hudlin, a successful movie director ("House Party" and "Boomerang"), readily acknowledges that he was among BET's critics when he was named president of entertainment at the network two years ago. But since taking over BET's Hollywood operations, he's gradually engineered the overhaul of a channel known for its thrift-store programming -- videos, infomercials and old sitcom reruns. This summer, for example, BET introduced four new original series, including "Baldwin Hills," a reality show about the lives of young African Americans who live around that upwardly mobile Los Angeles community.

In coming weeks, the network will launch "Sunday Best," an "American Idol"-style gospel-singing competition; and "Exalted!," a series profiling ministers from across the country. On deck later this season: "Bufu," BET's first animated sketch series, co-created by comic actor Orlando Jones.

Music videos now constitute just less than 20 percent of BET's schedule, says Hudlin, 45.

"A lot of the frustration with BET in the past has been grounded in the lack of [genre] diversity of programming, and more specifically the lack of original programming," he says. Noting that BET's highest ratings come from its original programs, he says: "I want to show the full range of black life, to depict our full humanity. I want to do that in a variety of ways -- through reality [series], news, animated, specials, you name it."

For much of its history, BET founder Robert L. Johnson contended that his network couldn't afford the same kind of investment in new programs that many other cable networks made. Johnson said on several occasions that BET was discriminated against by advertisers and cable operators, who paid lower rates and lower fees relative to other networks. So BET relied heavily on the least expensive programming it could find: rap and soul videos supplied by record companies, infomercials, talk shows and dated network sitcoms such as "Amen" and "227."

The formula drew relatively small audiences, but established BET in more than 84 million cable homes. When Johnson sold the company to the media goliath Viacom Inc. in 2001, the approximately $3 billion deal made him America's first black billionaire.

The new, original programming strategy reflects "a natural evolution" under Viacom's ownership, says Lee, the chief executive. Which is to say that BET has deeper pockets behind it and a healthier bottom line under it. Although Lee won't disclose financial details, she says that BET has the highest profit margin in Viacom's stable of networks, including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.

"It almost feels like two years ago we put a sign out that said, 'Open for Business,' " says Lee, who has been with BET for 21 years. "We're getting more creative ideas coming our way and more people pitching them. If Will Smith walked in the door a few years ago with the greatest idea since sliced bread, [but] it didn't fit our business model, we couldn't do it."

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