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The evolution of BET network

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
BET is bringing back the popular sitcom "The Game" as part of its expansion into new scripted programming.
BET is bringing back the popular sitcom "The Game" as part of its expansion into new scripted programming.
  • BET celebrates its 30th anniversary this year
  • The black cable network says it's well past just hip-hop videos and is expanding programming
  • Co-founder recently slammed BET for irresponsible programming
  • editor says the company has gained more clout in the industry

(CNN) -- When BET launched 30 years ago, they were the only kid that looked like them on the block.

The network aimed at black viewers stood alone in a spotlight that often shone brightest on the criticisms against them -- from shoddy productions to less than positive imagery of the black community via what some viewed as misogynistic, hyper-sexualized music videos.

These days, the network is trying to shake those negative views with expanded programming, an initiative to take the brand global and a new channel, Centric, aimed at older adults.

"We spent over a year really thinking about the values of the company and what our audience wanted from us," said Debra Lee, chief executive officer of BET. "We came up with a new strategy where we have put in the forefront the need to respect, reflect and elevate our community and for the past year and a half that's given us a road map of where we want to go."

But getting there hasn't been easy and there are some who believe the network still has a long way to go.

BET co-founder Sheila Johnson recently told The Daily Beast that she is ashamed of the network she and ex-husband Bob Johnson started. She slammed BET for, in her opinion, promoting promiscuous, irresponsible sexual behavior.

"I just really wish -- and not just BET but a lot of television programming -- that they would stop lowering the bar so far just so they can get eyeballs to the screen," she said.

"I know they think that's what's going to keep programming on the air; that's what's going to sell advertising. But there has got to be some responsibility. Somebody has got to take this over. Because with all the studies that are out there, this is contributing to an atmosphere of free sex, 'I don't have to protect myself anymore.' "

Johnson's is not a new criticism.

In the late 1990s, cartoonist Aaron McGruder used his strip to criticize BET's imagery of African-Americans. The spat led to Bob Johnson taking out an ad admonishing McGruder for his lack of respect of him and his pioneering network. Two years ago, a coalition calling itself Enough is Enough protested the BET Honors awards ceremony for what it said was programming that demeaned women and glorified criminal activity.

Paul Farhi, a pop culture reporter for the Washington Post who has covered BET over the years, said the network also took heat for lagging in areas such as producing original programming like its competitors, including MTV.

"As MTV moved into scripted programming and appointment programming, BET sort of got left behind," he said. "The best [BET] could do was run reruns of old network stuff."

The acquisition of BET by Viacom in 2000 as part of a $3 billion deal brought an infusion of funding, which helped the network play catch-up, Farhi said. The past few years have seen the successful addition of original programming including reality shows like "Tiny and Toya."

CEO Lee points to such successes as proof that BET is on a path to retaining the positives of its heritage -- giving a black audience programming they want -- and maintaining relevancy in an age where so much talk about the country being in a "post-racial era" leaves things far from black and white.

"No other network is producing new kinds of product for our community and I'm not really sure it's true that we are in a post-racial environment," Lee said. "When you look at the networks you don't see lead characters that are black, and you don't have any entirely black casts, so I think we have taken a few steps back in terms of Hollywood."

Lee pointed to two new scripted comedies coming in the fall and the network's now global reach as just some of the inroads the network is making to broaden itself.

"The worst thing in the world would be for us to grow comfortable where we are, become stagnant and not grow," Lee said. "There are new generations of BET viewers who want different things and in the TV business you have to keep changing."

BET's primary channel reaches more than 90 million households and can be seen in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and sub-Saharan Africa. That means fans in the Middle East can tune into the "Wendy Williams Show" and viewers can catch "The Mo'Nique Show" in Dubai.

"The channel is a general entertainment channel to its core that has a lot of different viewpoints of black culture, many of which we feel haven't been seen outside of the United States," said Michael Armstrong, senior vice president and general manager of BET International. "Black culture has done a very good job of expanding internationally through music, but there are a lot of stories that haven't been told."

Mickey O'Connor, senior editor for, said BET is poised to grow its audience the way other networks have.

"For me I think the future of television is cable. I think the future of cable television is the niche network, the niche programming," he said. "If you look, you see these networks like Bravo, USA and even AMC lately and you see that they are focused on a small segmented audience and it attracts really high-end advertisers. And I think that's what BET is starting to do, particularly with the launch of Centric."

O'Connor said BET has also shown that it has clout, as evidenced by its ability to resurrect "The Game," a CW sitcom that had been canceled. BET noted that the show had a cult following and deftly managed to bring it back, announcing recently that new episodes will be produced for the fall.

"That was a complicated deal, which they had to put together from going to the production to making sure the actors were back on board, and they did it," O'Connor said. "I think that's a really strong sign of their health."