BET develops "The Apprentice"-type show starring Damon Dash
BET Putting Original Series on Schedule
By Andrew Wallenstein
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - BET is developing a slate of original series for the first time in the 25-year history of the cable channel.
The Viacom-owned network, once known as Black Entertainment Television, is preparing to introduce a new primetime series each quarter beginning this month. Upcoming projects include a hip-hop-flavored version of "The Apprentice" with mogul-in-the-making Damon Dash in the Donald Trump role. Development also is under way to create a companion for BET's afternoon powerhouse "106th & Park" series and a weekday late-night talk show.
But the new infusion of originals might create some casualties as well, with BET considering canceling its 11 p.m. newscast, "BET Nightly News." The network has been criticized in recent years for curtailing its news programming.
Overseeing the expansion is Stephen Hill, who has been promoted to executive vp entertainment and music programming, and Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, vp programming development since coming over from a similar post at Sci Fi Channel two months ago.
"We realized if we're going to make our mark, it's in original programming," Hill said. "We know its ambitious, but it's a long time coming."
Hill and Lattaker-Johnson are ushering in changes despite the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the management at BET, which is available in nearly 80 million homes. The network's founder, Robert Johnson, has hinted that he intends to step down when his contract expires in December, five years after selling the company to Viacom for $3 billion.
BET traditionally developed and produced internally what little series programming it generated, but the network now has set up a formal development unit that has been busy taking pitches. "Now the doors are wide open," Lattaker-Johnson said.
BET declined to specify the increase in its programming budget for 2005-06, but Kagan Media estimates BET will spend $83 million this year, up from $66 million in 2004.
First up is the April 21 launch of "Blowin' Up!: Fatty Koo," a joint production with Sony Music that follows the grooming of a new band signed to the label.
Unscripted programming will remain the focus through the fourth quarter, when BET unveils "Ultimate Hustler," which tests the business acumen of contestants guided by the flamboyant Dash, CEO of Rock-A-Fella Records and a film producer whose titles include "The Woodsman." Rather than say "You're fired," Dash will snatch the Roc-A-Fella gold chain off the neck of losing contestants.
"Hustler" will be preceded by "Remixed," a makeover show in which guest stylists and life coaches aim to make people beautiful inside and outside.
Although BET hopes to follow in the footsteps of Bravo, creating signature programming like its "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," that's where the comparison ends, according to Lattaker-Johnson.
"I'm not here to take proven formulas and put brown faces in them," she said. "I'm not going to do the black 'Bachelor.' If we do a dating show, it's not going to be derivative."