New programming topper Reginald Hudlin energizes cabler's development slate

The fact that Black Entertainment Television only garnered one Image Award nom this year doesn’t concern the Viacom cable network’s new entertainment prexy, Reginald Hudlin.

“I had no idea that was true,” says Hudlin, 44, who made his name as a filmmaker with such pics as “House Party” and “Boomerang” in the ’90s, and further solidified his industry stature last year by exec producing new tube laffers “The Boondocks” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” “The last thing I do is sit around worrying about awards,” he says.

But if a paucity of NAACP recognition reflects BET’s relevance to — and beyond — African-American viewers, well, that is very much a concern for Hudlin, who’s been charged with the rather enormous task of reimaging the 26-year-old channel’s programming — something he has set the bar pretty high for.

“BET is the largest black media company in the world,” explains Hudlin, who works out of BET’s Studio City, Calif., offices. “And our goal as a brand — and that includes everything from online to wireless to the cable channels — is to be a repository of all black culture … Black culture is pop culture, and it’s a global commodity. And right now, there isn’t a one-stop shop. Particularly with the merger of UPN and WB, there’s going to be a lot of desperate eyeballs hungry for black product. We want to be the premiere destination for consumers of black entertainment.”

Of course, BET is far from irrelevant right now, with viewership up 17% in 2005 and revenue growing 20% annually over the last five years. But change is certainly in the air, and the channel’s decisionmakers see opportunity to grow the business. For one, Viacom, which purchased BET from founder Robert L. Johnson in 2000 for $3 billion, just completed its split from CBS Corp., meaning the channel is now a more significant part of the smaller Viacom Inc. operation going forward.

Meanwhile, Johnson last year ceded the role of president and CEO to longtime BET chief operating officer Debra L. Lee, who has expressed determination to beef up the channel’s creative staff and its original programming.

That initiative began last summer with the hiring of the network’s first-ever entertainment prexy — the Harvard-educated Hudlin, known for eclectic taste that ranges from comicbooks to screwball comedies.

Hudlin quickly put together a star-studded benefit for Katrina victims last fall that included such notables as former President Bill Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and he’s added off-net properties, such as the Fox sketch-comedy series “In Living Color,” that have been a good fit. Original programming efforts so far have included “Beef,” a series of documentaries highlighting feuds in the hip-hop world.

But most of the big stuff that will define Hudlin’s tenure is still in development and under wraps. “We’re looking at everything — comedic stuff, action stuff, primetime animation, late-night cutting-edge stuff,” he explains. “Our immediate focus is primetime.”

Certainly, animated primetime series appear in the offing, with Hudlin hiring producer Denys Cowan — whom he’d worked with while adapting Aaron McGruder’s topical/political “Boondocks” comicstrip into a Cartoon Network skein last year — to run the company’s newly minted toon division.

Several years ago, of course, BET took plenty of heat for dropping the bulk of its news and public affairs programs — a strategy that included the exit of popular news-talk host Tavis Smiley, who now has his own PBS show. Addressing at least part of that concern, Hudlin has brought in CNN political analyst Carlos Watson to host a new issue-focused weekly program called “Meet the Faith.”

BET is still often accused of pandering to a youthful audience with edgy hip-hop music programming — a strategy that might not end soon, with the channel’s video-countdown-themed “106 and Park” regularly usurping MTV’s venerable “Total Request Live” in ratings points. “Music will always be a big part of BET programming, because it’s a big part of black culture,” says Hudlin, who cautions that change to BET programming under his watch will come slowly and carefully.

“We’re looking at one timeslot at a time,” he explains.

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