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BET Wagers on Originality

The TV network hopes to score big with an initiative that includes black-themed movies and a talk show.

March 04, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an eye to taking the nation's only black-owned cable network to a distinctive new level, Black Entertainment Television founder and Chairman Robert L. Johnson recently detailed the network's plans to launch a major original programming initiative.

The first phase begins this month with production on 10 original movies marking the introduction of BET's Arabesque movies. The series of films, scheduled to begin airing in the fall, will be adapted from a line of Arabesque romance novels aimed at the African American market. It marks what Johnson calls the largest single production order revolving around black-themed movies.

The network also intends this fall to enter the uncertain talk-show arena. Preparations are underway for BET to launch a talk and variety show that Johnson hopes will succeed where other recent short-lived ventures, such as "The Magic Hour," "Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," have failed.

Though no plans or hosts for the late-night venture have been solidified, BET would have the luxury of letting a late-night show gain some momentum, according to Johnson, whose programming is underwritten so that a show's fate isn't so closely tied to advertising revenue. Other urban-based series were canceled because of dwindling ratings, which translated into dwindling revenue from advertisers, soon after their premieres.

Johnson's programming moves are designed to give more visibility and clout to BET as well as to expand its audience base. On average, BET's prime-time shows draw about 372,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, from a total cable universe of 67 million households.

BET's programming initiative is being launched just as the networks and major cable outlets have expressed a greater interest in black-themed films. And it's also probably an effort by Johnson, credited with creating and steering the only network targeted to African Americans, to counter criticism of BET's programming choices, which traditionally have included a major emphasis on music and rap videos.

NBC's recent "The Temptations," CBS' "Mama Flora's Family" and TNT's "Passing Glory" are just a few of the original TV movies that have already scored with audiences. Fact-based features such as NBC's "Mutiny," based on the Port Chicago munitions explosion during World War II, after which 50 black soldiers were tried for mutiny; ABC's "Parting the Waters"; Showtime's "Love Songs"; and HBO's Dorothy Dandridge biopic are just a few of the upcoming high-profile projects featuring black subject matter.

Although BET will face competition from these projects, the cable channel's films will provide an alternative, according to Johnson, designed as they are to be dramatic and melodramatic, veering away from mainstream networks' tendency to produce projects tied to historical or true events.

"We're putting black women in lead roles," Johnson said. "We're showing romantic relationships. The networks and Hollywood don't know how to deal with black sexuality. We are going to do something that's never been done before."

BET's move into original non-news and non-music programming is a strategic shift made possible in part by partnerships forged with several corporations, including Liberty Media Group, a subsidiary of Tele-Communications Inc.

"BET has always had a great brand and a good niche in the marketplace," Johnson said in a recent interview with The Times. "Now this is the point where we make the jump into hyperspace, just like in 'Star Wars.' "

Johnson added, "The television industry is evolving in so many ways, and BET is now positioned to be one of the big winners in that industry. Nine out of 10 African Americans know what BET is. And financially, we're very well positioned. With our management team, we think we have all the ingredients of being a force in the media world for the next century."

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Whether BET can capitalize on that inherent identity will largely rest on the relative success of this new original programming stream, a model that HBO, Showtime and TNT have used effectively in recent years.

Debra L. Lee, president and chief operating officer of BET Holdings, the parent company of BET, suggests BET has more than just the idea of original programming working in its favor. The new slate of films will fill a void she sees as being abandoned by both broadcast and cable networks: significant and dramatic programming aimed at blacks. She pins the problem on the lack of prominent and influential black executives.

"This is the first time that black people will be the sole people responsible for green-lighting films," said Lee, characterizing the ability to say "yes" to projects as "a major move forward."

Although some industry executives are taking a wait-and-see stance on BET's new programming strategy, several cable executives have weighed in with an assessment of Johnson's plan.

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