BET, which has been targeted in recent years for showcasing provocative music videos and other programming that critics and cultural observers said showed blacks in a negative and derogatory light, is unveiling an ambitious development slate. These new programs include a number of scripted shows and projects that emphasize positive aspects of African American culture.
Among the highlights of the lineup is a new scripted comedy from the Wayans family and a gritty police drama which would be the urban-oriented network’s first scripted drama. Though no air dates have been announced, many of the series are expected to be on the network’s official 2012-13 schedule, which will be unveiled in early summer.
BET executives said the slate offers a response to observers who have asked for a greater range of programming while also offering an alternative to more brash series featuring African Americans that have been popping up on other cable networks such as VH1. The network’s president of original programming, Loretha Jones, who joined BET after the 2008 ouster of former programming head Reginald Hudlin, said she wanted the network to move in a more diverse direction that would appeal to a wider range of viewers.
“We realize that BET will never be all things to all black people,” said Jones, a former Hollywood studio executive and former creative partner of “Hollywood Shuffle” producer Robert Townsend. “But we felt we could be more. The diversity of projects shows how we can serve different parts of our demographic while being able to bring the BET voice to different genres.”
A top priority is “Second Generation,” featuring the “second generation” of the Wayans family, who first came to prominence in the 1990s when Keenen Ivory Wayans created the groundbreaking Fox sketch comedy “In Living Color.” In addition to Keenen, that show also starred his brother Damon Wayans (“My Wife and Kids”), and sister Kim Wayans. Brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans later starred in the WB comedy “The Wayans Bros.” and helped create the “Scary Movie” franchise.
The “second generation” Wayans — Craig Wayans and Damien Dante Wayans — “emerge from the shadow of their famous uncles and forge a new path toward Hollywood,” according to the show’s description. Marlon Wayans is one of the executive producers.
Also being fast tracked is “Gun Hill,” which would be BET’s first scripted drama. The series, which stars Larenz Tate and is being developed by Reggie Bythewood (“New York Undercover,” “Get on the Bus”), gives what producers call “a twisted spin to the biblical Cain and Abel story": The lives of identical twins on opposite sides of the law — one is a cop and the other is a con — become intertwined one night when the cop is killed and the con assumes his identity.
In addition to the scripted shows, popular minister T.D. Jakes, comedian-author Steve Harvey,Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and TV judge Greg Mathis are behind various reality projects, including one series that will revamp “Showtime at the Apollo”
BET executives said the network’s renewed ambition has been buoyed by the continuing success of “The Game,” the sports-related comedy which was rescued two years ago after being canceled by the CW. That show’s popularity, they maintain, has been crucial in generating a more positive perception of BET, which has been haunted for years by charges from critics and others saying too much focus centered on music videos with scantily clad women and brash rappers bragging about their bling and sexual exploits.
Those blasts reached a crescendo when Hudlin developed reality shows such as “Hot Ghetto Mess” and “Hell Date.” Hudlin was fired in September 2008, just a few days after the poorly received premiere of BET’s first scripted series, “Somebodies.”
Ironically, Jones pointed out that VH1 and others are now showing series that feature black people engaged in loud, outrageous behavior — the sort of fare that was blasted when it appeared on BET.
“The types of shows that people complained about when we aired them don’t spark outrage when they appear on other networks,” Jones said. “But that doesn’t matter. We are about re-establishing a relationship with our audience — figuring out what they expect rather what we were delivering.”