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Article first published as BET Networks: A High-Definition Cultural Experience on Technorati.
BET Networks: “A High-Definition Black Experience”
Backstory: Since 1980 Black Entertainment Television’s mission has been to serve the nation’s African-American audience with quality entertainment, music, news and public affairs television programming. Crosscutting Diversity x Entertainment reveals new insight in the merchandising and selling of Black Culture.
Crosscuts: Diversity x Entertainment
Culture Cut: The Culture of Black people in the United States can be define in two ways: in the context of history or in the context of society. Either route will direct you towards the purpose of a culture, race, and ethnicity that is caught somewhere between preservation of pride and reinvention of legacy.
Whether African-American or Black, the unique search for identity, as every ethnic culture has experienced, is still undefined because its history is unresolved; the effects and affects of slavery are still evident in some parts of the country. More than 52% of Black consumers still live in ‘the South’ where slavery was most evident. And the Black family unit, the traditional symbol of strength of most Cultures, appears to be at odds with itself and modern societies values and social mores.
Add to that, legends, stereotypes, urban myths and the realities of Black Americans and it’s hard to tell who is telling the story of Black Culture and what is entertaining about it.
Commerce Cut: BET (Black Entertainment Television) creates and sells Black Culture-based entertainment and media cable programming to advertisers. BET Networks programming reaches 90M American households targeting 18-34 and 24-5; BET, Centric, BET Digital/Mobile/Home Entertainment. The brand is notoriously known for its annual BET Music Awards Show and Hip Hop video programming. BET was the first Black company to be listed on the NYSE in 1991, and was sold to Viacom (VIA) in 2003 for $3B.
In 1980 there was an obvious social need for Black programming. Fresh from of the political progression of the ’70s, African-Americans in the ’80s began to live their own version of the American Dream; increased education of African-Americans and second-generation Black money, led to life style aspirations no different than the General Market. Then there was a hiccup, we questioned the validity of ‘real life’ Cosby’s because our realities focused on a different picture. Hip-Hop was born and became a cash cow for the music, media, and entertainment business verticals. Whether it was on BET or not it was Black-inspired entertainment, and there are no barriers to entry in 2010. How will BET curate Black Culture for the masses?
Crosscutting: What is Black? For that matter, what is ‘Black Entertainment and the role of Television?’ How do marketers and programmers accurately segment African-American consumers? Hispanics and Latino are separate and further differentiated by cultured and acculturated. These discrete classifications don’t apply for African-Americans; do psychographics include or further segregate African American consumers from the General Market? Perhaps these questions are best answered when analyzing, interpreting and applying the data.
What if everything you know about Black is wrong. It’s not color. Its emotion, spirit, and courage. And what if many Americans were partially Black but didn’t know it? Would that be a gift or a curse? According to a study by Dr. Mark Shriver, a Penn State molecular anthropologist: 10% of Black Americans are more than 50% white, and there are at least 50M whites with at least one Black ancestor. The cross-over yields about 72M American consumers, twice the American Black population. It’s bigger than you think.
What if Nike told the story of ‘the Day in the Life of the History of Black Culture?’ It’s not blasphemy is it? I mean, Black is a vital and key brand differentiator for BET, and for many product segments and the retailers who sell brands.
Brand Opportunity: How do you sell ‘Black Culture’ today? What is it’s value proposition? For a Black media outlet, presumably, the brand promise is: it connects and relates to its audience in the way that the General Market cannot access. Is BET is a Cultural liaison between Black Culture and Popular Culture.
BET needs more relevance to compete today in a media agnostic and fractured ecosystem. The social network was a fixture in the Black community long before there was a business application. The dialogue that occurs in that human context needs to be fostered at BET more organically, for authentic two-way Cultural digital dialogue that doesn’t exist today.
BET needs prominent Cultural ambassadors - a Puffy, a Jay-Z, someone to create emerging authentic programming that is unique to African Americans yet interesting to the rest of the population who aren’t Black. Discovery Communications (DISCA) Discovery Channel brand or even the Hallmark Channel are prime examples of leveraging equity to create new markets and portfolio drivers.
Market Risk: Competition and digital. Brain Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast (CMCSA) is the most brilliant mind in media today. Comcast is the largest cable operator and home internet service provider in the United States, with 51% ownership of NBC Universal (deal pending) and part ownership of BET’s main competitor, TV One. Though TV One is only available in 38M homes to BET’s 90M, its diverse digital portfolio of assets held through, Interactiveone, includes properties with mainstream identities and focuses. The possibilities are endless in the Comcast universe.
Black Entertainment stretches Black and Entertainment across its entire portfolio, making it reliant and vulnerable to an ethnic-first approach which can marginalize new viewership adoption. The brand becomes unstable struggling between a demographic and culture; BET is as much Detroit as it is Watts and everthing in between.
BET has not invested in News since the early ’90s, a critical mistake. MTV gained promise for its early news coverage with Curt Loder as it created the music video programming. The 2012 Presidential election is an obvious opportunity and challenge for Black media and programming; when something seminal happens in Culture often times BET lacks the necessary credibility, originality, accuracy, and ingenuity to report it.
Overtly focusing on Black programming versus relevant programming creates quick death today; there is no new penetration of Black viewers - growth must be produced by either increasing the value of Black ‘eyeballs’ or creating new ones. Many Black consumers 18-34 are sourcing much of their digital and internet diets from their mobile devices, sharing experiences that they can relate to inside their ethnicity, and identify with outside of their Culture.