Here’s What BET Will Look Like Without Longtime CEO Debra Lee

President Scott Mills amps up scripted shows that ‘entertain, engage and empower’ African-Americans

BET president Scott Mills (l.) is working on projects with Dwayne Johnson, Robin Thede and Jamie Foxx. Sources: BET, Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Debra Lee has left the building.

For the first time in more than two decades, BET Networks is under new management after the longtime CEO departed the company last week, 32 years since she first arrived at BET.

Now, the company is moving forward under president Scott Mills, who rejoined BET in January (Lee relinquished the president title at the time) in a sign of parent Viacom’s new direction under CEO Bob Bakish. Mills, who had previously worked as evp and chief administrative officer for Viacom, spent the first 15 years of his career at BET, most recently as president and COO. As BET Networks adjusts to life without Lee, Mills, who joined the other network presidents at Viacom’s agency upfront dinners this spring, spoke with Adweek about his vision for the company.

Amid the upheaval in the TV industry, Mills said, “the one thing you don’t want to be in this changing landscape is a brand that doesn’t have a clear value proposition.”

“The power of a brand that really resonates with a particular audience and stands for something very clearly is of paramount importance,” he said.

Despite its recent leadership shake-up, BET is on track for its fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year ratings growth in both the 18-49 and 18-34 demos and has been the No. 1 network on cable among African-American adults for 17 years.

While the network is growing audience and share, BET is not looking to bring in new brands in this year’s upfront market. Instead, “it’s growing those advertisers and trying to get more dollars out of the people that we have,” said Louis Carr, president of media sales for BET Networks. He added that Lee’s departure has not affected BET and Viacom’s upfront talks, which are currently underway.

As for how Mills will tweak the company’s brand, “with any leadership change, you look to take the best of what’s working, and you then look to find opportunities to continue to grow and opportunities and areas to strengthen the company even more,” he said.

To that end, the president clarified BET’s mission statement—“to entertain, engage and empower the African-American community”—which he said differentiates it from other networks that are “simply trying to aggregate the African-American audience.”

BET will air 21 percent more original programming than last year, with a focus on scripted shows, which have been the network’s most popular programs of all time, including The Game, Being Mary Jane, The New Edition Story and Real Husbands of Hollywood. “We’ve had success in unscripted, but nothing on the order of magnitude as the success that we’ve had with our scripted content,” Mills said.

BET’s new scripted slate includes the drama American Soul, which will focus on Soul Train creator Don Cornelius. Like The New Edition Story, “it’s anchored in music and a true story about African Americans striving and achieving incredible things, overcoming extraordinary [hardships],” Mills said.

Games Divas Play, based on Angela Burt-Murray’s book about professional sports, combines many of the elements that were successful in The Game: “Athletes, relationships, beautiful people, and all the drama that you expect when you put those things together,” said Mills.

BET will be rebooting the 1992 Eddie Murphy film Boomerang, which is “iconic IP in the African-American space,” Mills said. “It was the first time on the big screen that people saw this depiction of this array of extraordinarily successful, professional African-Americans.”

And next May will see the start of BET’s long-term deal with Tyler Perry to create new series for the network.

As it increases its scripted output, BET is fine-tuning its unscripted approach. “All of our research has shown, is that while our audience enjoys the over-the-top, unscripted content that some of our siblings generate [i.e., VH1], they don’t want it on BET. They think of BET as home and say, ‘We’re perfectly happy to go to our neighbor’s house to consume some things, but we only want certain things in our home,’” Mills said.

That means BET will be “extraordinarily thoughtful” about its unscripted output, focusing on music, which is core to the network, given that it airs the top-rated award shows in cable, including The BET Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards, Soul Train Awards. “Our audience has tremendous affinity for the artists that are relevant toward them,” said Mills, who will be broadcasting a docuseries called Ladies Night, which follows ’90s girl groups like En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa on tour.

BET is also working on Finding Justice, an unscripted series from Dwayne Johnson and his production company about people uncovering injustices in African-American communities and fighting for change.

“The way the country is so profoundly fragmented creates a tremendous need for this,” said Mills. “We did this awhile ago, and now is really the time to get back into this space. There are injustices being perpetrated on the African-American community that are disproportionately concentrated on our community, and we think it’s our responsibility to shine a light on that.”

The network is also continuing with late-night talk show The Rundown With Robin Thede, and expects to share official news about its future at a later date.

Later this month, two of BET’s biggest annual events–the BET Experience and The BET Awards— will amplify Mills’ new entertain/engage/empower mantra. The BET Awards, hosted on June 24 by Jamie Foxx, are “a celebration of all the things that are wonderful in the black community,” Mills said.

Meanwhile, the sixth BET Experience, which will be held June 21-24 at L.A. Live, also “hits the trifecta,” said Mills, with musical performances from Chris Brown and SZA, “Genius Talks” with accomplished people like Black-ish/Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi and rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris, and engagement opportunities for audiences and brand partners.

Coca-Cola returns as presenting sponsor of this year’s BET Experience, which also features partnerships with AT&T. Gillette, Head & Shoulders, M&M’s, Nissan, Sprite, Uber and Walmart.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.