And with host Taraji P. Henson presiding over a performance lineup that boasts a newly added Lil Wayne joining Lizzo, Jack Harlow, Latto, Muni Long, Roddy Ricch and many others, the promise sounds more like a guarantee. And that’s not even counting the artists who will be paying tribute to this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, Sean “Diddy” Combs: Mary J. Blige, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Faith Evans and Bryson Tiller, among others.
“This year we said, ‘Let’s really lean into the music,’” says BET CEO Scott Mills. “And it’s going to be great.”
The awards show is not without controversy, however. Earlier this month, Lil Nas X slammed the BET Awards after failing to receive any nominations this year despite his continued success since receiving a best new artist nod in 2020 (Roddy Ricch wound up winning that year). “Thank you bet awards. an outstanding zero nominations again,” Lil Nas X tweeted at the time. He continued, “I just feel like black gay ppl have to fight to be seen in this world and even when we make it to the top mfs try to pretend we are invisible.”
BET responded with a statement noting the artist’s 2020 nomination and performances on the show in 2019 and 2021, saying in part, “We love Lil Nas X…. At BET, we are passionate advocates for the wonderful diversity that exists within our community.” That didn’t stop Lil Nas X, though. On June 24, he released a new song targeting the network called “Late to Da Party” featuring YoungBoy Never Broke Again.
Mills spoke with Billboard about Lil Nas X, how he network brands to broaden its scope through streaming service BET+ and content provider BET Studios, and maintaining the brand’s cultural roots under non-Black ownership.
Have you spoken with Lil Nas X and has his complaint prompted discussions about reviewing BET’s nomination process?
I haven’t spoken to him. However, we really do deeply value and respect Lil Nas X so we were caught off guard by the assertion. We work really hard to be extraordinarily inclusive in all we do in terms of the awards show and depictions in our film and TV content. Notwithstanding the hard work we do, we have to understand that there might be opportunities for improvement in some of our practices. So we are looking at our processes to figure out any blind spots that might have contributed to any outcomes. We’ll go through that exercise because we are committed to making sure that we are sensitive to any potential for unconscious bias.
This is the 22nd year of the awards. What kind of show can viewers expect?
There’s some great talent that we’ve already gone public with, but you know Connie Orlando [BET executive vp of specials, music programming & music strategy] loves to keep a couple of surprises in her back pocket … and she’s definitely holding something back. Also, as you can imagine, lifetime achievement honoree Diddy does nothing modestly. So the performance that’s going to celebrate him is totally genius. As you noted, this is the 22nd year of the BET Awards. And I love when people can bring a creative approach that you can still get excited about, notwithstanding the fact that you’ve seen or been to a million award shows. Given the creative freedom that Connie and the team have developed, celebrating this day is always incredibly fun. In addition to airing BET Awards on LOGO, MTV, VH1 and TV Land as we did last year, the roster has been expanded to include Comedy Central and Pop. There’s also our international simulcast on BET Africa, BET France, My5 and Sky On-Demand in the UK, as well as BET Pluto in the UK and Brazil.
Speaking of Diddy, why is this the year to honor him?
Our responsibility is to use our show to celebrate excellence and accomplishment in our community. One of the things I value about Diddy is how he constantly evolves and finds new spaces to succeed in; his extraordinary journey of transformation is really compelling. When we honor and celebrate people, what we’re also doing is saying to our community that these are things that we value, things that we should be manifesting. He started off as a music impresario then producer, rapper and businessman. That whole arc is really a great message to deliver this year. Next year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, so our honorees and show will be anchored in that celebration.
Why no BET Experience music and entertainment festival or a Humanitarian Award honoree this time?
The music and entertainment festival will definitely return next year. The reason why there isn’t one this year is because at the time that we would have had to make a series of long-lead commitments in December and January, there was still such uncertainty around the state of the pandemic. And we wanted to prioritize safety. That was first and foremost. But we’ve already got a team working on bringing back a completely over-the top experience in 2023. Because there were so many opportunities to feature so many amazing performers and performances on this year’s show, we’re not handing out the Humanitarian Award this time. But we will be presenting a big pro-social philanthropic moment during the show.
Besides the BET Awards, the network annually presents the BET Hip-Hop Awards, the Soul Train Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. As awards shows across the board confront lower ratings and other issues, why are awards still an important BET franchise?
Among the plethora of award shows, there is nothing in the world like the BET Awards. It is fundamentally different from anything whether it’s the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards, American Music Awards or the the MTV Video Music Awards. One of the most powerful lines in our culture is music. So in that intersection, no other show is authentically African American like the BET Awards. It’s something that only we can do. We’ve said this for a long time: that it’s like the Black Super Bowl. And our partners are major companies like Procter and Gamble, Pepsi and McDonald’s among others. They see it as a strong opportunity to engage with our community, and the show does extraordinarily well. It’s generating more revenue in 2022 than it’s ever generated in the franchise.
The success we have with other awards shows is because of the way we position them. In the case of the Image Awards, we thought it was vital to create a platform that shows the world, not just our community, what Black creative excellence looks like. Soul Train is an iconic, fun and engaging show done at a different price point than the BET Awards with lots of advertisers wanting to tap into the emotions of that brand’s particular demographic. And because hip-hop is such a powerful force in our culture, the Hip-Hop Awards have become an important force in our awards franchise. Overall, we just love being there for all the artists and our partners value these shows as a platform to engage with the Black community. For many people, these aren’t just award shows. It’s about the special relationship these shows represent for the community.
In January 2023, you’ll be celebrating your fifth anniversary as the head of BET. What was your vision for the network when you returned in 2018 and your vision now?
It’s all about serving our community. When Viacom, now Paramount, asked me to take the helm I decided to take it because I understood that we had a great media brand, a giant footprint that allows us to play in so many spaces. But the critical key was to make strategic decisions today — based on where the industry was headed — that would keep it on the right path so it could continue to thrive and prosper well into the future. So I built plans for what it would entail to build an ecosystem; understanding that while the cable business was this hugely valuable platform, we had to build out additional platforms so that we could create an ecosystem in which we would share content, talent, audience and revenue. And in doing so, we would grow and be able to bring in more content, talent, audience and revenue into this machine.
As part of that we launched streaming service BET+ [in 2019] and the BET Studios platform [with Paramount last year]. In addition to BET and BET+, we’re also serving a broader array of select third-party platforms so that we can be competitive in pursuing any major Black talent. Writer/producer/director Kenya Barris left Netflix to come to BET. We did a deal with Tyler Perry when I was chief administrative officer at Viacom around 2017 or so. At the time, he was in a partnership with Oprah Winfrey and Discovery. And people were like, “You guys can’t get Tyler to leave Oprah.” Building the studios platform has also allowed us to bring in others like , Taraji P. Henson and Gabrielle Union. [NOTE: on June 16, BET+ premiered Martin: The Reunion featuring the cast of the popular 30-year-old sitcom — the first in a series of such specials, says Mills.]
What’s your response to naysayers who ponder whether BET can maintain its cultural roots since now part of Paramount and is no longer Black-owned?
In May, 50 Cent had a meeting with me and my team including our studio head, head of business and legal affairs and head of unscripted content. And 50 Cent was like, “Goddamn, that’s a beautiful room.” And I said, “Have you ever done a pitch meeting in a room like this before?” And he said, “Never.” The point is the meeting wasn’t contrived; we do have a small fraction of non-diverse people on our leadership team. But BET is run and managed by Black people. That’s who the network is: firmly committed to our Black culture. And we didn’t just want to write checks, going toe-to toe with Netflix and others. We really wanted to do something to go up against the issue of racism in the industry. So when we created BET studios, we also started giving invited Black creators equity in the platform.
Heading into 2023, what is the biggest challenge facing the media business?
It’s going to be a very difficult time. The media business was already going through a storm before these economic headwinds began. Through the ecosystem that we’ve created at BET, we’re a 42-year-old media company that put up double-digit growth this last year [BET’s total revenue rose 19% in 2021 vs. the previous year]. In such an economic environment, it’s natural for people to reduce spending, to retrench and cut back. So we really have to manage how to be fiscally disciplined to navigate this period of turbulence. It’s not going to go away in a couple months. So how do we make sure that this amazing engine that we’ve built continues to flourish? That is the balance.