12:00pm PT by Michael O'Connell
BET Pushes Further Into Scripted With Anika Noni Rose Drama, 'New Edition' Mini and More
BET's new slate, unveiled Wednesday at its upfront presentation, is bullish on all fronts — but the programming is veering particularly hard towards scripted. The cable network, TV's top ad-supported cable network for African-American audiences, offered up details on a whopping seven scripted projects.
Those projects, which include a TV movie, a miniseries, four new series and a backdoor pilot much in the same vein as flagship Being Mary Jane, are expected to help the network move towards a year-round schedule of scripted entertainment.
"We're aware of the landscape," BET programming president Stephen Hill tells The Hollywood Reporter. "People can get content anywhere. What we really want to do is make sure we have fresh content throughout the year. We haven't done that consistently, but we're making a commitment. That's what's driving this — that and finding compelling content you're not likely to see anywhere else."
BET's current stable of original scripted series is admittedly small. With The Game wrapping its run in 2015, the network still has Being Mary Jane and Kevin Hart passion project The Real Husbands of Hollywood. Among the projects joining that pair is Tales. A collaboration with TIDAL and Irv Gotti, the eight-episode anthology series will highlight a different hip-hop track with each 60 minutes, with a three-act narrative based on the lyrics. (Director's cuts will debut on TIDAL after the BET premieres.)
Series orders include stand-up-themed mockumentary half-hour Comedy Get Down (10 episodes), dramedy Benched (six episodes) and police drama Rebel (eight episodes). The latter two, as Hill sees it, are the network's way into the current dialogue affecting much of its audience. "Benched and Rebel really allow us to address what's happening in the legal system and society," he said. "These show are going to allow us to address the real-world situations affecting African-Americans."
With Anika Noni Rose now attached to drama pilot The Yard — she's joined by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jazz Raycole and Peyton Alex Smith — the network also is committing to air the project, much like it did with the Being Mary Jane telepic before its official series order. (And, speaking of Being Mary Jane, Hill says the network is close to announcing a new showrunner in the wake of executive producers Salim and Mara Brock Akil's departure for their deal at Warner Bros.)
There also is the Nelson Mandela pic Mabida (starring Laurence Fishburne as the celebrated anti-apartheid revolutionary and South African president) and a miniseries based on New Edition. Empire star Bryshere Gray is now officially on board on the mini, playing Michael Bivins, and joins Elijah Kelley, Luke James, Keith Powers, Algee Smith and Woody McClain.
Hill says the recent spike in diversity programming on television, both on-camera and behind-the-scenes, has not affected the kinds of pitches they've been seeing. "We have been in the trenches for so long, so when it comes to authentic fare, they come to us first," he added. "I look at Being Mary Jane, and it's so authentically black in a way that makes it clear other networks, even as they strive for diversity, are coming from another point of view than BET."
As for the future of Real Husbands of Hollywood, Hill also noted that he'd happily see the show run for 172 seasons: "We think we're the luckiest channel in the world to have the No. 1 box-office draw in Kevin Hart."
Scripted is not the only thing on deck. The network is adding docuseries Music Moguls (Birdman, Damon Dash, Jermaine Dupri and Snoop Dogg are featured), a vehicle for comedian Gary Owen, gospel music showcase Joyful Noise and Sway Calloway-hosted hip-hop competition One Shot to its reality roster.