BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill sat perched on a makeshift control board in the middle of the Shrine Auditorium on Thursday as production technicians readied the historic venue for the network's 12th annual awards show. The three-hour-plus production will air live on Sunday and feature performances by D'Angelo, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj and Usher, as well as a tribute to the late Whitney Houston led by her mother, Cissy Houston.
One of many crucial questions: Hill needed to know exactly where a mirror ball would be hung for a planned Donna Summer tribute.
"The real challenge here is all the coordination," said Hill, who also serves as president of music programming and specials for the 32-year-old network. "There are so many moving parts, it's way more intricate than any Swiss watch."
Since its inception in 2001, the telecast has garnered a reputation for transforming what could be a stiff ceremony into one of the biggest parties of the year. But when viewers tune into Sunday's broadcast, it will be the last time they see it beamed live from the Shrine, where it's been held since 2006.
In April, the network announced plans to expand the awards into a three-day destination festival called the "BET Awards Experience" and revealed a freshly inked deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group that will bring the show to the glitzy, $2.5-billion L.A. Live complex for 2013.
It's an experiment that could prove a tipping point for the network. Though the show is routinely one of BET's highest rated programs — 2011's attracted 7.7 million viewers — it continues to be eclipsed by competing music specials including the American Music Awards on ABC andMTV's Video Music Awards. That could change if the network gives more camera time to the weekend's events.
"It allows us to take the show to the next level," said Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive of BET. "We are making more opportunities for advertisers and taking it to a level that can get more consumers involved."
The shift also strengthens the network's commitment to music, something that's been questioned in recent years as it has moved to more original programming, much like other Viacom-owned networks MTV and VH1.
BET has made the telecast a tentpole event on the awards calendar because it's the only show of its caliber where urban music dominates center stage. "It's a place where our audience sees artists they don't see on other networks. They watch the Grammys and they're unhappy because there aren't enough black artists," Lee said.
Moving the show from the Shrine to the more spacious and newer Nokia Theatre — there is roughly a 1,000 seat difference between the two — means the ceremony is now housed at the same venue used by the AMAs and the VMAs (the latter recently announced plans to move across the street to Staples Center).
As excited as Hill is about the switch, he acknowledges the Shrine has its charms. When strolling around the venue he stopped to point out the Moorish Art Deco design on the ceiling of the auditorium.
"Look at how ornate this is," he said. "Look at the attention to detail of the architecture. Nokia is state of the art, which is great. But art is great too. We have to try to turn Nokia into art."
Gabe Sobol, booking and sales manager for the Shrine, said the aging building has sometimes struggled to accommodate the show's growing production needs — a reason Lee said they made the switch from previous home the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak).
"A lot of the infrastructure is from the 1920s, which can make it very difficult. That can become a challenge," he said. "But buildings like this don't really exist anymore. Theaters now tend to be more functional as opposed to aesthetic … but it's what we have going for us. There's hardly another venue that has the look and the history this venue has."
Lee and Hill said the move was motivated by growing ticket demand and the desire to tap into the amount of people who flock to the city for related events sprinkled all over the city.
The area surrounding the Shrine lacks the robust night life scene of L.A. Live, and Lee said the shift allows the network to play a bigger role in pre and post events.
"We talked to the people at L.A. Live before they opened the Nokia, before the Ritz and the Marriott opened so we've been having ongoing conversations with how to best utilize that space," she said. "There is such a demand for the tickets that the more access we can give our audience the closer they feel to us."
Hill said the plan is to have concerts, seminars and a free expo at the properties in L.A. Live's plaza including Staples Center, Conga Room and Club Nokia — monetizing the event by offering packages to the show, including hotel accommodations.
BET's sister network Centric will also expand the Soul Train Awards, which have been taped in Georgia for the last few years, into a three-day experience including a comedy showcase and concert.
How the new digs will play in people's living rooms is uncertain. But Hill isn't caught up on beating the competition aesthetically.
"Nobody at home cares. The viewers don't care where it is, they just care that they see a great show," Hill said. "It doesn't have to look different than anything else out there, it just has to look right for us. What I want to make sure we spend time on is … does our show look, move and feel right for us."