BET is doubling down on scripted programming.
Under orders from new network president Scott Mills, the Viacom-owned cable network has handed out straight-to-series orders for a half-hour comedic reboot of 1992 Eddie Murphy feature Boomerang; comedy Peachtree Place, produced by Girls Trip‘s Will Packer; and a drama, American Soul, inspired by the life of Soul Train mastermind Don Cornelius.
All three pickups are part of a push to lean into what Mills says BET viewers want most: premium scripted content. It’s the first programming mandate to come from Mills, who in December was tapped to take over for Debra Lee (with the latter remaining chairman and CEO of the Viacom-owned cable network). Mills inherited the role after serving as Viacom’s executive vp and chief administrative officer, overseeing human resources, real estate, facilities and security. He previously worked for BET Networks, serving as president and COO, where he led business operations.
“The shows that have been most successful on BET are all scripted: The Game, The New Edition Story, Being Mary Jane, Real Husbands of Hollywood. When you succeed in that space, it has a wonderful effect on the brand,” Mills tells The Hollywood Reporter as part of an exclusive interview ahead of BET’s upfront announcements.
The goal, Mills says, is to increase original programming by 21 percent, including nine original movies and new scripted series as he looks to leverage relationships with prominent African-American writers and producers and Viacom’s corporate siblings. The scripted push arrives as BET is also bringing back its signature awards shows, including the BET Awards, Soul Train Awards, Black Girls Rock and Hip-Hop Awards.
In terms of Tuesday’s orders, a writer and producing team on Boomerang have not yet been determined. The 10-episode, half-hour comedy hails from corporate sibling Paramount Television. Like the original, it revolves around a successful executive who finds that his lifestyle choices have turned back on him when his new boss turns out to be a bigger deviant that he is. It’s described as an updated version that explores contemporary workplace dynamics, including the changing role of gender, office politics, relationships and the conflicts between Generation X and millennials.
American Soul is inspired by the personal trials and professional successes of a young, ambitious and troubled impresario, Don Cornelius. The 10-episode drama is an unflinching look at the entrepreneur, his Soul Train dancers, crew and musicians in a cutthroat Hollywood in the 1970s and how they work, play, rise and fall against the backdrop of the show most responsible for the way African-American culture was perceived by the world. Jesse Collins, Jonathan Prince and Devon Greggory executive produce. Don’s son, Tony Cornelius, will co-exec produce alongside Andy Horne. Greggory will pen the pilot and Jesse Collins Entertainment will produce.
Packer’s 10-episode comedy Peachtree Place follows five 30-somethings living in Atlanta as they try to build professional and personal lives they can be proud of, but the one thing they don’t have keeps impeding their progress: love. Unresolved feelings from college are uncovered and secrets revealed, forcing these friends to finally deal with uncomfortable truths about each other. Packer exec produces; Felischa Marye will pen the series and co-exec produce; Will Packer Media’s Sheila Ducksworth will also serve as a co-EP. Packer, meanwhile, also will produce three movies of the week for BET. Details on the three additional movies of the week, all set to air in 2019, will be announced at a later date.
Boomerang, American Soul and Peachtree Place join a roster of scripted series at BET that includes the forthcoming two-hour series finale of Being Mary Jane, The Quad, VH1 import Hit the Floor and In Contempt.
Below, Mills talks with The Hollywood Reporter about his vision for BET.
Debra Lee has been at BET for more than three decades. What was your mandate from Viacom CEO Bob Bakish about taking over as network president?
With Debra’s decision to step back from the day-to-day, Viacom wants to ensure that BET continues to be the extraordinary brand and asset that it has been for the last 30 years. Under Debra’s leadership, the brand was elevated to a new level and there’s tremendous value associated with that. [My mandate] was take that and maintain it and then extend it.
In such a competitive era for content and creators, what’s the biggest challenge facing BET?
African Americans are the primary driver of the cable ecosystem from a viewership perspective. African Americans consume and watch significantly more TV than the general population and African Americans are leaving cable at a much slower rate than other populations. Most people have figured that out and more people are investing in African-American content. Kenya Barris is trying to get out of his overall deal and it’s illustrative that Netflix is trying to poach him. That would give them two mega-deals with African-American creative executives [including Shonda Rhimes].
I’ve been here three months and the first thing I did was partner with the head of programming here, Connie Orlando, to go out and sit down with all the creative executives with whom we do work, with whom we have worked and with whom we’d like to work to share our updated creative filter and programming strategy to get a sense of how people would like to work with us and what their perspectives are. We had breakfast with Kenya, Will Packer, Martin Lawrence, Justin Simien and they all say BET is home and they all want to have a show on BET. It’s empowering that, yes, people want to get their shows on HBO and Netflix, but they very much want to have a project with BET. It was a consistent refrain and as a result we’re doing business with a lot of really great people.
So the biggest challenge is that there are a lot of people really aggressively serving our audience and that means we have to be an extraordinary partner to the creative executives who are best at creating content for our audience. And that means we have to engage and support the creative community and we have to be respectful of the fact that they do have options. And we are respectful of the fact that they consider BET home and they want to do projects here. We have to make it compelling, easy and fun for them to do projects with BET.
So your challenge is making sure top producers can do both, premium and streaming as well as BET?
I wouldn’t call that a challenge. Look at the Will Packer project. He’s doing a lot of work in a lot of places. We sat down with Will and he wanted to work with BET. And [Viacom] announced last year that we have a mega-deal with Tyler Perry. The challenge is the volume of content that’s being created for our community. That’s required us to focus our attention on projects that we fundamentally believe are going to be able to break through. There are a million projects that people would like to do but because there’s so much content going after our community we have to be so disciplined to say, “We like that but is it going to break through?”
One of the knocks on BET of late has been that other networks have programmed to your core demo better than you have. How do you bring viewers who started out watching BET but have since abandoned the network for Netflix or VH1?
We’ve revised our programming filter to look for the consistent elements across the shows that are pulling large audiences, whether on BET or on other platforms. Our new focus is on shows that are dramatic, character-driven, aspirational and authentically anchored in the African-American experience. We are confident that content in that vein is going to allow us to more consistently pull big audiences you’ve seen us pull with The New Edition Story, the BET Awards, Being Mary Jane and The Game.
Boomerang is a library title from Paramount, which is part of the Viacom family. How else are you looking to leverage Viacom’s robust library?
We are all looking at a number of projects that we’re going to collaborate on with Paramount Television that we’re really excited about. We have two teams actively going through their library and figuring out which ones are most exciting. The world has changed so much since that movie and it allows us to update the framework, the setting and the gender differentials in compelling ways.
You’re doubling down on scripted, which is an expensive and competitive genre to cut through. Why start there?
If you look at what our audience is consuming, it’s a high-end drama content. Our audience enjoys salacious reality programming, some of which is generated by my friend [MTV and VH1 president] Chris McCarthy at VH1. Our audience enjoys that but they have been clear to us that they don’t want to see real-life African Americans behaving badly on BET. Our audience values that, they just don’t want it in our house. They’re happy to visit our neighbors [at VH1, a corporate sibling] and watch that, but we don’t want it at home. There is more that we can and will do in the unscripted space but it takes that kind of over-the-top stuff that other people are using to pull really big numbers off the plate for BET. But what our audiences equally said is they’re perfectly happy to watch over the top dramatic stories that are fictionalized.
What have your conversations with Tyler Perry been like? It’s surprising that one of your first orders isn’t from him.
Tyler can only begin creating content for BET in late 2019, that’s the only reason that’s the case. His deal with OWN isn’t up yet. When I was at Viacom corporate, I helped work on his deal. We started talking to Tyler about a deal back when I was chief operating officer here in like 2007. We love the idea of working with him across a multitude of platforms, whether it’s linear television, film, digital and OTT.
Amid all the program shuffling that has occurred at Viacom in the past year-plus as Spike was rebranded Paramount Network, what’s the show that you most wish was on BET?
Paramount has First Wives Club, written by Tracy Oliver and produced by Will Packer [who both worked together on Girls Trip]. It’s going to be an all African-American cast. That would be the one that we would be most excited to get that would really fit with our brand filter.
How much more scripted are you looking to do? You have the end of Being Mary Jane, VH1 import Hit the Floor, In Contempt and now these three and more on the way.
In Contempt airs this month. Hit the Floor will air in Q4 this year. For 2019, we are greenlighting five new original scripted series. And we anticipate either Hit the Floor or In Contempt is going to do well enough for us to bring it back. So we’ll have six scripted series in 2019.
On the corporate side, Viacom rejected CBS’ initial offer to remerge the companies. What’s the overall mood within Viacom?
People aren’t really distracted by it. Everybody is aware of it, but the day-to-day operation of the brands aren’t really impacted by [merger talks].