In April, BET aired a special called Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort, which was the network’s first foray into producing and airing a show under pandemic conditions.
“At that point, even though we didn’t really think that we’d be extended through now, we started thinking about the ‘what if,’” says Connie Orlando, BET’s evp of specials, music programming & music strategy. “What would an award show look like if we had to produce it during the pandemic?”
Turns out, they had to do just that. Last night, on Sunday (June 28), BET aired the 20th annual BET Awards, hosted virtually by Amanda Seales, with the important tagline: Our Culture Can’t Be Cancelled. The three-hour long show featured video appearances from Michelle Obama, Beyoncé (who accepted the Humanitarian Award), Lizzo and more, and included powerful performances from rap and R&B’s biggest stars, including DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Wayne and Alicia Keys.
Unlike award shows of our pre-COVID past, where just a handful of performers might steal the show with a stellar vocal delivery or highly-produced set complete with pyro or other stage effects, the BET Awards managed to make every artist a talking point by entirely reimagining what a virtual performance could be.
“I would hear ‘virtual’ and cringe, because immediately people think of couch performances and iPhones,” says Orlando. “So in my mind, it was always about redefining what ‘virtual’ can be. The goal was always, ‘How do we make this bigger? How do we surprise people? How do we push everything to the limit?’’ That’s what we set out to do.”
As a result, all 15 performances ended up being mini movies that brought viewers into each artists’ world. That meant a Vegas desert setting for Megan Thee Stallion’s Mad Max- and “California Love”-inspired delivery of “Girls in the Hood” and “Savage,” or a soundstage outside of Los Angeles filled with green screens for D Smoke’s and Roddy Ricch’s performances (filmed while practicing social distancing and other safety measures, of course, with guidance from Viacom’s COVID-19 taskforce as well as local government officials).
“We always felt like if we could make [the show] visually stunning, then we’d be in good shape and the audience would receive it,” says BET Awards’ executive producer, Jesse Collins. “We really tried to rethink an award show and change our creative habits that we’ve built over the years.”
Collins says that typically, he starts creative conversations by sending each performer the stage set up and telling them, “Here’s the box that you’ve got to work within, let’s figure this out.” But this time, Orlando says they asked artists: “‘What would you do if you weren’t limited to the stage?’ Once you throw that out and people start thinking, you can envision something bigger than you may have thought [was possible].”
Allowing for more creative freedom for an award show performance enabled artists to feel more engaged than ever, says Collins — adding that because every artist wanted to make a statement, they delivered a performance that they deeply connected with. “We were seeing cuts along the way and helping massage [each performance], but the artists and their teams really worked hard because everybody knew all eyes were going to be on this show — and I think everybody went above and beyond.” (He adds that Lil Wayne was the first to turn in his performance, about two weeks ahead of the show, while Anderson .Paak sent his at 7:00 a.m., the day before the awards).
In spite of delivering a series of what looked like professional-grade music videos, Collins and the team emphasized to artists and their teams that these were in fact still performances, and needed to look and feel like such. Which is why he required the artists to perform with a microphone, as well as record original vocals instead of using their already recorded and released records. And while these performances did come with a higher-than usual price tag for an award show gig, Orlando says that saving on a venue and hiring smaller crews due to social distancing allowed the cost of the show to actually be lower than what it would have been for a traditional set up.
Plus, Collins says this year’s budget was all about reallocating, saying, “Money that would have gone to a venue and the costs that come along with an audience, we were able to put more of those dollars on the screen. I’ve been doing this a long time, and that allowed us to do stuff that we’ve never been able to do before.”
Among those things was allowing Megan Thee Stallion to film in a desert. “Normally, going outside [for a pre-COVID award show performance] is a real challenge, really expensive, and rarely happens — and also often doesn’t fit with the overall show, so it just feels like an outlier,” says Collins. But now, because of how the BET Awards redefined a virtual performance, they were able to pull it off in a way that felt seamless and game-changing all at once. “I feel like it was an arrival statement for her as an artist, and those are always great things for a show to be a part of.”
Other highlights for Collins included the Black Lives Matter package that came out of Keys’ performance of the recently released “Perfect Way to Die” (it was Alicia’s idea to have the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other lost Black lives written in chalk on an empty street) as well as the “Fight The Power” remix that kicked off the show. Following a commanding a capella intro from Keedron, Public Enemy, Rapsody, Nas, Black Thought, Flavor Flav, and YG all delivered compelling versus in a visual creative directed by Mike Carson.
“Because they were all shot separately, we did not want to open the show where it just looked like everyone was in their living rooms,” says Collins. [Carson] just made it what we were trying to establish right away: it was a message, it was energetic and it was socially distant — but wasn’t Flava Flav on his couch, nobody would have wanted to see that version.”
And even though the show wrapped less than 24 hours ago, already, Orlando and Collins are beginning to rethink the future of award shows in general. “There are some conventional things that everybody thought an award show had to have,” says Collins. “Showing those reactions from celebs and cutaways are a staple, and for the moment I just don’t know if they’re as important as we thought they were. That’s the feedback I’m getting from artists, managers and viewers on Twitter.”
He also mentions that dealing with artist conflicts has forever been a trying piece of putting together an award shows, saying, “they’ve got a festival or a doctors appointment, or there’s not enough time to pull it together or the creative that they want can’t be executed in a physical space — this takes that out [of the equation].”
And while Collins acknowledges that post-pandemic, award shows may end up returning to “normal,” he isn’t taking the idea of a hybrid off the table, saying that this year’s BET Awards showed him that artists and fans alike are most interested in a performance or even a speech that is not only visually stunning, but also comes with context. “The messaging [of the show] was on point and everyone received it — and now we have to do what Beyoncé said, and vote like our life depends on it, or none of it matters.”
Adds Orlando: “This challenge turned into an opportunity to set the bar for others to think differently. I love that this event is something everyone can look at and think, ‘Ok, it can be done,’ and there’s a way to wrap your head around it. This has been a blessing in a lot of ways, because I think traditionally, award shows are award shows. And now, it’s literally been blown up to let your imagination dictate what they [can be].”