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On hot streak, BET places more chips on original fare

Channel pushing boundries with 'Down Low,' 'American Gangsters'

They’re called men on the down low — they have sex with women but, on the sly, they’re also sleeping with other men, often infecting their female partners with the AIDS virus.

You’d expect “The Down Low Exposed,” a gritty hourlong doc, to show up on HBO, Showtime or FX, networks that pride themselves on pushing the boundaries. Instead, it premiered in primetime on BET, known throughout most of its 26 years as a showcase for musicvideos featuring black performers.

Just as recently as three months ago, author and Fox News analyst Juan Williams, referring to those musicvideos, excoriated BET as a network that promotes “gangster images as authentic black identity.”

BET prexy-CEO Debra Lee doesn’t deny that some of the videos deal in sexual and gangster images. “But that’s the nature of some hip-hop and rap,” she says.

As a counter to these videos, BET’s president of programming Reginald Hudlin points to one of the cabler’s highest-rated original series, the six-episode “American Gangsters,” which averaged 1.65 million viewers during its recent premiere.

“Gangsters” profiles some of the most vicious black criminals who ever lived and, says Hudlin, is “the opposite of a glorification or a romanticization. These biographies show how gangsters made their communities worse by their deeds, and ended up either dead or in prison.”

When filmmaker Hudlin (he directed “Boomerang” with Eddie Murphy and “House Party”) took the BET job in summer 2005 he says, “My No. 1 goal was to focus on primetime and get four original series on the air by the end of 2006.”

BET was known for sitcom reruns, theatrical movies and videos, but original series can translate to bigger license fees. Cable operators pay BET a monthly stipend of only 15¢ per subscriber — low for a general-entertainment net.

A whirlwind of energy, Hudlin ended up commissioning eight series, three of which — “Gangsters,” “Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is” and “Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown” — delivered triple-digit increases over the time period a year ago in both total viewers and adults 18-34, BET’s target aud.

Lee says BET racked up the highest yearly Nielsen ratings in its history in 2006, averaging 686,000 viewers in primetime, 10% more than those of a year ago and ranking it 26th among ad-supported cable nets. Net is up by 7% year to year among the 18-34 set, and by even larger amounts among adults 18-49 and 25-54.

Both Hudlin and Lee chalk up some of those gains to original series, although primetime movies like “Next Friday,” “Juice” and John Singleton’s “Baby Boy” tend to harvest much bigger audiences than BET’s primetime average, and such off-net sitcoms as “The Parkers” and “Girlfriends” also draw a reliably large viewership.

BET has bought the reruns of HBO’s series “The Wire,” an unsparing look at black crime in Baltimore, and Hudlin says he’s carving out a 90-minute time period for each weekly episode so the program won’t have to be edited to fill an arbitrary 60-minute slot. Broadcast standards will force some editing for content and language, adds Hudlin, “but we’ll use a scalpel, not an axe.”

Hudlin has more than a dozen series in development, including a few scripted shows. He says he’d like to greenlight as many as 16 of them for 2007, most as limited series that would average six episodes. According to Kagan Research, BET’s annual programming expenses shot up from $86 million in 2005 to $104 million in 2006.

But BET’s cash flow is robust: It chalked up $300 million in ad revenues in 2005 and $330 million in 2006, Kagan says. Additionally, cable operators paid BET $138.5 million in 2005 license fees and $148 million last year.

At 83 million households, Lee says BET has reached maturity as a cable network in the U.S.

Philippe Dauman, prexy- CEO of Viacom, which owns BET, says he’s looking for growth on the BET Web site, engineering lots of broadband streaming video, and on “creating branded BET networks abroad,” as well as selling original BET programming to networks in foreign countries.

Also in the works, says Dauman, is a BET-branded series of theatrical movies that its sister company Paramount Pictures would distribute, the way it distributes MTV-generated pictures and Nickelodeon-produced titles.

As Lee puts it, “BET has compelling content, so I want to take it to every platform out there, from iPods to ringtones on your cell phone.”