BET Awards continue to attract new viewers


It's an unmistakable pattern that BET Networks chairman and CEO Debra Lee and her team have noticed each year: Ratings for the BET Awards tend to build during the course of the telecast.

"It was a result of people calling each other and saying, 'Did you see that?'" Lee explains. "We found that our viewers are super-consumers of online, mobile and iTunes (technologies) -- but they're not to the detriment of traditional TV. They'll sit and watch TV and be on the computer or on the cell phone at the same time, texting their friends about what's going on."

To that end, organizers are boosting the BET Awards' multiplatform potential with the introduction this year of several interactive components designed to give their multitasking viewers a say in the running of the actual event. Most notably, by logging on to and casting their votes, fans will determine which of two songs -- "Amusement Park" or "Straight to the Bank" -- 50 Cent will perform on tonight's broadcast.

Whether it's enabling audiences to interact with the ceremony or just securing top-tier talent to perform and present at the event, the BET Awards, which launched in 2001, seems to have mastered the art of attracting viewers at a time when most televised award shows are struggling with slipping ratings.

Last year, the show attracted 6.6 million viewers to the network -- the highest number ever recorded in the cabler's 26-year history -- and it drew more African-American viewers in the highly desirable 18-34 and 18-49 age demographics than not only the NAACP Image Awards, Soul Train Music Awards and VIBE Awards but the Grammy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards as well.

According to Stephen Hill, BET Networks executive vp music and entertainment programming, the success of the show is due in part to viewer loyalty. "BET has been very fortunate to have a loyal audience that wants to see us do well," he says. "I think everybody rallies around this show with a sense of family and a sense of pride every single year. And we never want to let our audience down in that respect."

Reginald Hudlin, BET Networks president of entertainment, points out that the ceremony's appeal reflects larger trends in popular culture as well. "Black entertainment happens to be the most popular entertainment today -- with all audiences -- and we have a show that celebrates the best in music, in television, in sports and in humanitarian efforts."

Comedienne Mo'Nique will host the show for the third time tonight when it airs live at 8 p.m. ET from the Shrine Auditorium, and nominees such as Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, LeBron James and Will Smith along with musical performers T.I. and, of course, 50 Cent, will help amp up the star wattage.

Additionally, actor-activist Don Cheadle, who has been instrumental in bringing international awareness to the crisis in Darfur, will be honored with the BET Humanitarian Award, while legendary performer Diana Ross will receive this year's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Veteran Grammy Awards producer Cossette Prods., which has been with the BET Awards from the beginning, returns for the seventh time for tonight's cablecast. "The Cossette team are such pros, and over the years have really come to understand our audience," Lee says. "I always like to say that I think they've used some of what they've learned on our show when it comes to pairing the right people together for the right performance and taken it to the Grammys."

The growing success of the show has led producers to search for fresh ways to address heightened viewer expectations. A move last year to the larger Shrine Auditorium -- after four years at the Kodak Theatre -- was part of the plan. "The Kodak is a phenomenal theater and has great character and ambiance," Hill says. "But it was just physically too small for how we wanted to go with the show."
As it is, those 6,000-plus seats at the Shrine are going quickly.

"Believe me, filling the house is never a problem," Hudlin says.