Black Panther battles ethics

Times Staff Writer

BET President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin plans to unveil what he feels is a slam-dunk hit for the network today at Comic-Con in San Diego: an animated series featuring Marvel Comics’ Black Panther.

The project about a black superhero marks the cable network’s most promising push yet in its struggle to launch an animated series that will appeal to BET’s target audience: urban youth. Realizing the series is a pet project for Hudlin, a self-proclaimed comics “geek” who was instrumental in relaunching the character in 2005 just a few months before he was hired to run BET. He is the ongoing writer of the comic.

But in greenlighting “The Black Panther” for its planned premiere early next year, Hudlin has ignited ethical questions on whether his personal involvement in the TV series benefits him financially while also clashing with his responsibilities as a network chief.

In press materials, he is listed as an executive producer on “The Black Panther” along with Denys Cowan, senior vice president of animation for BET Networks. Hudlin will also receive at least a story credit for the six episodes that have been ordered thus far, which are based on installments he wrote for Marvel.


Hudlin declined to answer questions this week about whether he was being paid specifically for producing or writing “The Black Panther,” and whether he would participate in possible future sales of the animated series to other outlets or consumers. Other executives at Viacom-owned BET also refused to comment on the project.

Some ethics experts who were contacted about the matter speculated on whether Hudlin’s treatment of “The Black Panther” represents a potential conflict of interest.

“This does raise the question of impropriety,” said C. Kerry Fields, a business law and ethics professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. “This deal doesn’t seem to have the sense of impartiality it should have. It certainly raises the issue of whether the board of directors for the network is exercising sufficient oversight. The cost, network support, advertising and its placement in the program lineup are all things he controls.”

Dean W. Krehmeyer, executive director of the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics at the University of Virginia, said there may be guidelines in place that would allow such a deal to move forward.

“I certainly would expect that there are policies in place so that if dueling interests arise, one would recuse themselves or there would be a committee that can assess things like this solely on its merits,” Krehmeyer said. “He certainly is being very open about this.”

The “Black Panther” deal echoes the dilemma faced by NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman when he was hired by the network in June 2007.

NBC did not force Silverman to sell his stake in his production company, Reveille, before he joined the media company, and Silverman began recommending that NBC buy Reveille shows. In the next seven months, NBC ordered at least 13 series and scripts from Reveille.

Controversy surrounded the deals, even though NBC Universal maintained it had formulated a review process to identify possible conflicts and to guarantee that Silverman wasn’t the only executive making decisions about buying and scheduling Reveille series. Last January, Silverman agreed to sell Reveille to deflect the continuing criticism.

As for Hudlin, it’s not the first time his leading role in a BET project has been questioned. In 2007, he directed the pilot episode of “Wifey,” a planned drama about the music industry that was scheduled to be BET’s first scripted series. The series eventually fell through. Hudlin has refused to say if he was paid a separate fee for directing, and how he split his time between his executive duties and directing.

At his Comic-Con presentation today, Hudlin is also promoting two other animated series, “BUFU” and “Hannibal,” that he has announced at previous Comic-Cons. However, both shows have hit creative roadblocks and have no scheduled airdates.