While an invigorated Viacom opted to eliminate most of its upfront events this year in favor of intimate agency dinners, the company made an exception for BET Networks, which will its hold its annual presentation this evening. As part of its upfront slate, the network is shaking up the largely white male late-night talk show space with a new series featuring an African-American female host, Robin Thede, while also launching a new biopic franchise in the wake of its record ratings for January’s The New Edition Story.
Meanwhile, BET is teaming up with Twitter for a new study about Black Twitter, where African-Americans gather to talk about things that affect the black community.
As the top-rated cable network among African Americans between 18 and 49 for 16 years running and a top 20 ad-supported cable network overall in the 18-49 demo, “we’ve proven that we know our audience better than anyone else,” said Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks. “We’re the only network to always—and in all ways—speak to African Americans.”
During tonight’s upfront presentation at New York’s PlayStation Theater, execs will talk about BET’s key role in shaping and spotlighting black culture, whose “influence is stronger than ever, whether it’s influence on Broadway with plays like Hamilton or it’s influence in music, fashion and technology,” said Louis Carr, president, broadcast media sales at BET Networks. “Our message is, ‘Say yes to black culture.'”
Lee hopes Thede, the former head writer for Comedy Central’s onetime late-night series, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, will give the network a toehold in the white-hot late-night space. Chris Rock will be among the executive producers for the Daily Show-like series, which will debut this fall.
“We’ve tried different things in late night, and one thing we’ve discovered is our audience wants to laugh,” Lee said. “They don’t want to deal with really heavy issues; they want to laugh and go to bed happy. We thought Robin Thede fits that role. The time is right for a late-night show directed at our audience, and Robin’s the kind of fresh, young talent that we need to have.”
Added Carr, “HUT [Households Using Television] and PUT [People Using Television] levels for African Americans have always been strong in late night.” While the series will be weekly for now, it could air nightly if it connects with viewers.
After the ratings success of The New Edition Story, the network’s most-watched scripted show in five years, BET will be building out a biopic franchise. One of the first out of the gate will be a spinoff of sorts, The Bobby Brown Story, from the writer of The New Edition Story.
Lee noted that viewers responded to The New Edition Story because “it was very authentic.”
“We had the band members as executive producers, so they worked with us on the biopic,” she said. “It’s not that they sugarcoated it; they were very up front about issues they had. But we weren’t doing it against their will, so we had access to their music. We cast the biopic in a way that’s very authentic.”
That’s the same approach BET will take with its other biopics. “It’s a good franchise for us and one we intend to take advantage of,” said Lee.
The network had previously announced Death Row Chronicles, a six-part docuseries about Death Row Records and its artists Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, ahead of the label’s 25th anniversary.
In February, BET was one of the six Viacom networks designated as the company’s “flagship” brands by new Viacom chairman and CEO Bob Bakish, when he unveiled his strategy for the company. “That’s a recognition that black culture is leading the global influence in music, fashion, celebrity, entertainment and sports. And we’re just doubling down on that,” said Lee. “But the designation of us as a flagship brand really shows the marketplace that our brand stands for something, and we have a loyal audience.”
While the “flagship” designation was reserved for the networks with global potential, “we were already a global brand,” said Lee. “What’s new is that Viacom is going to invest more in our programming, and scripted programming is a big part of that.” That includes a 40 percent increase in hours of original programming in the coming year. As a flagship network, BET will also be working with Paramount to develop film projects.
Lee is also renaming Centric, BET’s sister network for African-American women, as BET Her. “We wanted to align it with the BET flagship brand,” said Lee (the other BET networks are BET Jams and BET Soul). “We want to let the audience know it’s part of BET, and make clear what it is a channel for women. Centric didn’t really say that.”
At the upfront event, Lee and Carr will also be discussing the company’s partnership with Twitter for an industry analysis about Black Twitter.
“It’s a digital safe space where African Americans exchange ideas and opinions,” Lee said. “It can make or break someone depending on how it goes after it. We’re going to look at hashtags. We’re going to look at the black experience on Twitter. I’m on the board of Twitter, so I’m happy to see both companies working together.”
The companies, which will share their findings about Black Twitter during a separate event in June, hope the study helps clear up misconceptions about Black Twitter and help brands and advertisers understand their potential role in it. “So many people are confused about what Black Twitter is,” Carr said. “A lot of people thought Black Twitter had its own separate domain or that it was a group that transformed out of Black Lives Matter. We want to help people understand how you engage on Black Twitter, how you keep yourself out of trouble and make sure you use it to your advantage.”
UPDATE: During Thursday night’s event, BET announced several other new shows, including Divorce Saved My Marriage, a scripted dramedy from executive producer Kevin Hart about sparring spouses. Steve Harvey is executive producing BET’s Mancave, a weekly series in which a rotating round table of African-American men talk about current events in entertainment, politics and news. Face Value, executive produced by Wanda Sykes and hosted by Black-ish’s Deon Cole, is a game show in which contestants can win money for guessing facts about strangers from different walks of life based only on their appearance. Rapper 50 Cent is producing and hosting 50 Central, a new variety and sketch comedy show. And in the new reality show Love Room, two single strangers live together for a week to see if they fall for one another.