A moment that perfectly summed up the BET Experience, a weekend of concerts and events built around the BET Awards, happened right before Sunday’s telecast.
The preshow broadcast was underway in the courtyard connecting the multiple venues of downtown’s L.A. Live where the awards show and its branded festival take place when it was interrupted by police officers alerted by fire marshals that the red carpet area was over capacity.
So the crowd had to be cleared and the hosts of the preshow relocated. They only got back on air a few minutes before the actual BET Awards show started.
For those watching at home, it was a brief taste of the chaos that enveloped the entire weekend. For those in attendance, it was another example of what makes the BET Experience and the network’s award telecast so frustrating.
Since its inception six years ago, BETX, as it’s known, has yet to reach its full potential. It has never truly been able to capture the spirit of the network’s long-running and popular awards show or find a way to establish itself as an essential entry in an increasingly crowded festival marketplace.
The event prides itself on being a party. But you would never know it backstage at the Microsoft Theater, where the annual telecast is held, where everyone appeared interested in everything except what was happening onstage or outside, where scores of fans clamored to get close to the action.
Desiigner and Childish Gambino chatted in a quiet corner. Trevor Jackson danced with friends. Nicki Minaj was whisked to her trailer by a cadre of bodyguards. 2 Chainz puffed on a blunt. Kamaiyah noshed on a vegan slider.
Questions about its viability and its future preceded this year’s BET Experience — especially as newer, more focused events catered toward R&B/hip-hop audiences arrive in Southern California.
The billing for the headlining concerts at Staples Center could have greatly benefited from deeper curation or a theme that went beyond generic groupings (old school night, young R&B and young hip-hop appeared to be the boxes organizers aimed to check).
Still, fans came out to see artists such as LL Cool J, Nas, Chris Brown, SZA, Meek Mill and Rae Sremmurd over three nights, but those shows would have worked entirely on their own — without the BET brand — as multi-artist, genre-specific concert packages are sure-fire crowd pleasers.
The convention center was packed throughout the weekend as fans took in the smattering of free offerings and tried their best to rub shoulders with celebrities. And that carried over to Sunday’s messy pre-telecast — the one place you didn’t need to be a VIP to get close to the action around the actual awards, ironic since the four-day event is built around this kind of experience.
It’s clear that people want to get as close to the awards show as possible — the throngs hanging around L.A. Live on Sunday was proof of that — but there continues to be little to no connection between the festival supposedly promoting the awards and the award show itself.
Maybe that could have been remedied by streaming or broadcasting BETX to entice more fans or by building the music programming around what viewers will see on the telecast and theming lineups around BET properties past and present.
Imagine the hype the festival could have generated if organizers had taken inspiration from popular BET shows such as “Rap City,” “Video Soul,” “Planet Groove” or “Comic View.”
Conjuring nostalgia from the network’s past was at the forefront of Ludacris’ mind during his opening night set Thursday when he paid homage to “BET: Uncut,” which showed rap videos that needed pre-air warnings for various reasons and aired very late at night.
Seeing a nearly sold-out crowd erupt in cheers when he brought up the controversial early-2000’s show before launching into his tawdry single "P-Poppin'" — it got heavy rotation on “Uncut” — proved the audience was as hungry to relive a past era of the network as he was.
But BET somehow continues to miss the mark when it comes to playing to its strengths and appealing to its core.
The network doesn’t seem to really have much of a hand in its namesake festival and promoters already seem to be looking toward a future that doesn’t include BETX. AEG, which along with its promoter Goldenvoice, partnered with BET to produce the event, introduced two other events for that same audience — Smokin’ Grooves and the upcoming Summertime in the LBC (both quickly sold out) — and Live Nation booked the Staples shows instead of Goldenvoice, which this year produced the handful of club shows that were loosely affiliated with the festival.
Though the Staples shows did attract sizable crowds, none were sold out and those were the most affordable way to partake in the festivities, outside of the free offerings at the convention center — VIP packages, the only way to gain access to the awards show, ran between $1,095 and $4,500.
Sunday’s BET Awards were just as confounding.
It made no sense that rising upstart Ella Mai — whose hit “Boo’d Up” just went platinum and is one of the year’s biggest R&B smashes — was relegated to an abbreviated performance on a side stage. And R&B and soul music were underrepresented on both Sunday’s show and the lineup for BETX.
A singer as influential as Anita Baker, this year’s lifetime achievement honoree, deserved a far more thoughtful tribute than the one she was given. And while the show’s host, Jamie Foxx, brought a welcome level of irreverence to the telecast, the show was in desperate need of those watercooler moments worth talking about the next morning.