NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The cable upfront season has already spawned announcements ranging from programming acquisitions and ventures into live action to new names. But tonight Viacom's BET Networks will announce the launch of a new network, Centric, at its presentation to advertisers in New York.
Centric, named for "being at the center of the universe" of black culture, BET CEO Debra Lee said, is slated to launch in October in nearly 45 million homes. The network is designed to target affluent, trendsetting black 25- to 54-year-olds with programming that resembles a black-skewing version of Bravo.
Scott Mills, president-chief operating officer of BET Networks, said Centric allows BET to focus on what he calls a "very valuable segment" of the black audience while simultaneously serving more-diverse viewers on BET's flagship channel. Centric likely will take the place of BETJ, a sibling network now in nearly 45 million homes. "We are currently in discussions with our affiliate partners around the future of BETJ," Mr. Mills said.
Among the new shows Centric will use to reach that valuable segment are "Keeping Up With the Joneses," a "Real Housewives"-esque docu-soap chronicling the lives of high society in Houston; "Model City," which follows young black men trying to crack the New York modeling industry; and "Urban Livin'," billed as a "chic lifestyle interio-design show." Centric will also focus heavily on music and revive the Soul Train Awards for a November event in Atlanta.
BET is also readying a rebranding of its own, with the phrase "This is the time" guiding its broader focus on reaching different lifestyle segments of the 18-to-49 audience in addition to its sweet spot of upscale 18- to 34-year-olds. The rebranding began in spring 2008, when Barack Obama's presidential campaign began to gain momentum, culminating in an historic election that Ms. Lee said energized BET's viewers and inspired the network to take a more aspirational approach to its programming.
"We want to respect our audience, reflect different parts of their lives and elevate different parts of their lives, whether it's education, news or entertainment," she said. "We also want to attract folks who may not be black but are interested in black culture. We want to be broader and help people understand what our culture is all about."
The research resulted in a kinder, gentler programming slate that signifies the network has come a long way from shows like "Hot Ghetto Mess," the controversial reality series that prompted sponsors State Farm and Home Depot to pull out prior to its 2007 premiere. "Crews Control" is a reality series about "Everybody Hates Chris" actor Terry Crews' efforts to raise a large family with Christian values; "First in" is a docu-drama that spotlights emergency-response workers in troubled communities; and "Pay It Off," a game show in which contestants compete to pay off their bills one credit card at a time.
The family-friendly approach sits well with Ross Grimes, a media supervisor for Allstate at Tapestry, part of Starcom MediaVest Group, who likes BET's long-term commitment to better serve all aspects of its viewers' lives. "For clients like Allstate, that definitely helps to open up more programming opportunities. Advertisers like to go after that 18-to-34-year-old target, but some advertisers might have a different sweet spot, and it's important to hit all of them," he said. "It's good that they're taking a more broad-based approach to programming for African-American audiences, not just music videos and reality shows, but it's also news and it's family and it's stories and it's comedy."
What the brand means
The network polled more than 70,000 African-Americans about what the BET brand means to them, and eventually organized the results under five pillars of what the new brand would represent: "We Are Family," "Fresher Than That," "Shine a Light," "Backing Black Dreams" and "Not on Our Watch." The brand segments are similar to agency initiatives such as SMG's Beyond Demographics, which identified 12 lifestyle groups within the black community at an African-American Content Alliance Forum at New York's Apollo Theater for clients recently.
"We Are Family," for example, was based on the success of BET's highest-rated original series to date, "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," a reality show that chronicled the popular R&B singer and her dramatic family life that resonated with BET's multigenerational viewers.
"Fresher Than That" is a forward-looking phrase that could easily describe BET's upcoming series "Changing Lanes," a reality series from executive producer Max Siegel that will premiere in the second quarter of 2010. The series will focus on Nascar's Drive for Diversity program and its efforts to lure more minority drivers along the lines of the sport's Jonathan Smith and Michael Cherry, both of whom will appear in the show.
Jay Abraham, chief operating officer of Nascar Media, said he hopes the series will help the racing league reach more black Americans, who make up 10% of the Nascar fan base. "We want to expose people to the excitement of the sport, bring a new audience to the network and a new audience to Nascar," Mr. Abraham said. "It isn't only about finding the Tiger Woods of Nascar; it's about exposing the opportunities in our sport to the community, whether it's working as a PR person, a fabricator or an engineer, as well as a driver."