The Date: April 17, 2008
The Venue: Manhattan Center Ballroom, New York
Key Execs: Debra Lee, chairman-CEO, BET Networks; Louis Carr, president-media sales; Scott Mills, president-chief operating officer; Denmark West, president-digital media; Reginald Hudlin, president-entertainment
The Special Guests: LL Cool J, who kicked off the presentation with his surprise introduction of Ms. Lee; the singing stars of "Sunday Best," BET's gospel take on "American Idol"; Brian McKnight, singer and frequent BET Networks host; and Keyshia Cole, singer and star of BET's highest-rated original series, "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," who ended the show with three songs from her new album, "Just Like You"
The Food: Sliders, mac and cheese and knickerbockers were so popular they disappeared within minutes of the presentation's start and finish.
The Drinks: An open bar offering up everything from vodka to bourbon to champagne
The Swag: A leather, BET-branded BlackBerry holder, to send a subtle reminder to the on-the-go multicultural media planner.
The Pitch: With a presidential race as heated as the upfront season, only one media executive most effectively represents both competitive sectors. Enter Debra Lee, chairman-CEO of BET Networks, who began the company's upfront presentation by quipping, "Lots of Democrats can't figure out whether they want a woman or an African-American as their president. I figure I'd solve the problem for them."
Indeed, problem-solving will be the main part of BET's upfront strategy for advertisers this year, as it continues to diversify and scale its many distribution platforms. Online, the network is ramping up its efforts to super-serve the African-American community via its new vertical ad network, which launched in January with over 30 premium content sites and 22.7 million users. Coming later this year is a deeper dive into social networking with the launch of Comedy Time, which will coincide with the return of "Comic View," its popular black comedy series that helped launch the careers of comedians D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer. Other ventures include mobile (for popular hip-hop mainstay "106 and Park"), VOD and, as of this week, Xbox, via a broad-based new content partnership with Microsoft that will extend to MSN later this summer with the "BET Awards" in June.
President-COO Scott Mills said new distribution deals will help anchor the company's monetization and overall raison d'etre in 2008. "We're super-serving a very specific demographic target, ensuring we always maintain that demo in all the ways it consumes media. We're using it to create an environment with our marketing partners, whether it's through behavioral targeting or demographic targeting."
Proving its relevance across all platforms is also crucial for BET, which is seeing its brand leadership in the African-American entertainment market tighten as competitor cablers like TV One and Gospel Music Network expand their reach, and broad-based networks like the CW and TBS draw large audiences with dedicated nights of African-American programming such as "Everybody Hates Chris" and "House of Payne."
Even BET's Viacom cousins MTV and VH1 are attracting larger shares of black audiences through their popular celeb-reality series and music programming. Louis Carr, BETN's head of ad sales, sees the fragmented competition as his network's strength. "If you look at formats and genres, we have the widest array across formats and demos. We can go from gospel to hip-hop, scripted to reality, news to movies. We give a full menu vs. an appetizer."
Matthew Barnhill, senior VP-research at BET Networks, set out to prove BET's cultural stronghold on its audience by conducting a deprivation study among 10 viewers last spring. Thirty African-Americans aged 18 to 34 were asked to document their lives over a month-long period in which they could not watch BET or BETJ or visit any of the networks' web properties.
Mr. Barnhill ultimately found difficulty in keeping all the participants on board. "A lot of people wanted to drop out. One person did because he just couldn't do it. BET really is part of the shared social experience. Many of our viewers really felt they were disconnected from the world because they couldn't participate in the water cooler the next day, find out which artists were coming out with new songs, they didn't know the new movies, fashions, et cetera. They were not prepared for just how much they would miss BET and what void would be felt."
Persuading advertisers to go along for the ride will be easier this year, too, now that BET's newly created integrated-marketing team has two case studies under its belt in the form of "College Hill Interns," an "Apprentice"-esque competition series that built episodes around McDonald's and Toyota, and "Sunday Best," an "American Idol" for the gospel set that integrated Tide and, again, Toyota last fall.
Alvin Bowles, a veteran of AOL Time Warner's Black Voices who heads up the group, said the integrated deals drove the majority of BET's revenue growth last year, and will continue to do so in this upfront. "Last year the motto was, 'Let's prove the model,'" he said. "Now that we have tangible examples to take to market with a brand like Tide, we can create more advertiser-enabled programming from start to finish."
Last Year's Take: Ad revenues were up a tick for BET, with $412.4 million banked in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
The Ratings Game: BET scored the highest ratings in its history with the second season of "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," which averaged 1.8 million viewers and grew 44% over the first season. That's well above the 0.4 household rating the network averaged in prime time in 2007. Other recent reality hits for the network include "College Hill Interns," "Sunday Best" and "American Gangster." BET also fares well in live-plus-three-days ratings, or C3, where it averages a 95% retention rate among households.
The Digital Play: BET.com is the second-biggest online destination for the African-American audience with 2.3 million unique visitors, trailing AOL's Black Voices unique audience of 2.5 million, according to ComScore.
The Buyer's Take: Jeff Robey, associate media director for Tapestry, Starcom MediaVest Group's multicultural media buying arm, said BET continues to be the top network to reach African-Americans, despite increased competition. "There's definitely more options out there in the cable marketplace, but they're probably still the strongest player. Most advertisers are looking to get things beyond the TV spots, trying to get integrations and partnerships on a more grassroots level."
Plus, with clients like Disney and Allstate, Mr. Robey appreciates the network's move toward more family-friendly fare like "Sunday Best" and the forthcoming "106 & Gospel." "Gospel is a really big niche that gets missed a lot, and they've done a decent job with reaching that community."