For Its Upfront, BET Taps Robin Thede to Host a Late-Night Show and Creates a Biopic Franchise

Company rebrands sister network Centric as BET Her

Robin Thede will host a new late-night show for BET, beginning this fall.
Island Boi Photography

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.

We’ve tried different things in late night, and one thing we’ve discovered is our audience wants to laugh.
Debra Lee, chairman and CEO, BET Networks

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.”

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