REGINALD HUDLIN had a golden year in 2005 before he decided to throw it away.
The veteran filmmaker was serving as an executive producer for the new Chris Rock comedy "Everybody Hates Chris," after having directed the pilot episode of the heralded UPN series. "The Boondocks," the animated version of the incendiary comic strip that he helped develop for television, had made the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim slate. "Chris" and "Boondocks" were among the most buzzed-about shows of the fall.
An unapologetic comic book geek since childhood, the 44-year-old Hudlin had also realized his lifelong dream, hooking up with Marvel Comics to pen Black Panther, a black superhero, and Spider-Man.
It had all seemed to mesh for the Harvard graduate with strikingly eclectic tastes (name anyone else in Hollywood with a collection of 50,000 comic books who worships funk master George Clinton and the screwball comedy "His Girl Friday"). So Hudlin was understandably nonplused when the phone call came that turned his world upside down.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
BET executive -- A Jan. 8 Sunday Calendar article about Reginald Hudlin, entertainment president of Black Entertainment Television, said he had served as an executive producer of "Everybody Hates Chris." Hudlin directed the pilot for the series and was offered an executive producer position but didn't take it, opting instead for the BET post. Also, the article misspelled the first name of his wife, Chrisette, as Chrissette.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 22, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Reginald Hudlin -- A Jan. 8 article about Black Entertainment Television entertainment president Reginald Hudlin said that he had served as an executive producer of "Everybody Hates Chris." Hudlin, who directed the pilot for the series, was eventually offered an executive producer position but opted for the BET post. Also, the first name of his wife was misspelled as Chrissette. The correct spelling is Chrisette.
Seemingly out of the blue, Hudlin, who had no corporate leadership experience, found himself wooed by top executives for the newly created title of entertainment president of Black Entertainment Television, the highly successful cable network celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Taking on the position has established Hudlin as one of the entertainment industry's top black executives, more than a decade after his most noteworthy triumphs in film (directing the groundbreaking "House Party" and "Boomerang").
He envisions transforming BET into "the most dominant venue not only for African American talent but for consumers of African American entertainment" by rebuilding the news department, developing a wide range of original and topical series, and establishing divisions devoted to films and animation.
BET, available in 80 million households, has a solid programming base and a loyal viewership, particularly among young blacks. Its music show "106th and Park" is a regular stop for top hip-hop and film stars. The network scored impressive exclusive interviews with major figures such as former President Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson.
But throughout much of its history, BET has also been clouded by criticism from blacks and others who claimed the network had failed to live up to its potential. Too much focus, they complained, had been on raunchy music videos featuring scantily clad women and brash rappers bragging about their bling and sexual appetites. The emphasis was on the bottom line, rather than the cultural enlightenment and challenges that come with the development of original dramas and comedies, they claimed.
Robert L. Johnson, the network's founder and CEO, has historically brushed aside objections to BET's agenda. He became the nation's first black billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion but remained the major force behind the network's programming and vision. But Johnson is stepping down this month to pursue other business interests, and a new management team is being formed to take BET to the next level.
The top management of the network and its parent company reached out to Hudlin in the summer. They believed his urban-mainstream sensibilities, proven eye for spotting new talent and wide-ranging Hollywood connections -- including Quentin Tarantino, Ice Cube, Steven Bochco and Chris Rock -- would hasten BET's evolution.
Hudlin had in the past expressed his own misgivings about the network. Now he contends that BET was put in the no-win position of appealing to an audience that wanted it to be all things to all black people.
"The frustration was not what was on the channel so much as what wasn't on the channel," Hudlin says. "Then I get a call saying I'm on the short list for the job of president of BET, and I was completely intrigued. I called my brother Warrington, who I've always consulted with. He said, 'Reggie, this isn't a job you want to do, this is a job you have to do.' "
In the end, Hudlin opted for the path of most resistance, trading in the comparative easy chair of sitcom producer for the hot seat of a network head, complete with its constant pressure and deadlines, insane hours and never-ending scrutiny.
Hit the ground running
AS the new year launches, Hudlin has thrown himself into his role as network suit, although "suit" doesn't accurately describe his wardrobe of stylish pullovers and sweaters.
His focus is entirely on the network. A creative and personal falling out with "The Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder ended his connection with that series, even though his earlier involvement contractually obligates the show to credit him as an executive producer. (Ironically, during their partnership, McGruder often viciously attacked BET and Johnson in "The Boondocks" comic strip.)