BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – Sept 17, 2021 – BET is harkening back to its roots by offering equity ownership stakes to three of Hollywood’s hottest Black creators and producers of new and streaming content for African American audiences.
Not since 2001 when former Black Entertainment TV Chairman and CEO Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion to make himself and former wife Sheila Johnson the nation’s first Black billionaires, has the TV industry seen major Black ownership in Hollywood or on Wall Street.
Under a deal announced Wednesday (Sept. 15), Viacom launched the new BET Studios that provides ownership stakes in the new venture to principal partners Kenya Barris, Rashida Jones and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, all top Black producers, screenwriters and actors.
Hollywood-based Barris, producer of Black-ish, Girls Trip and #blackAF, is mostly known for his decision to leave $100 million on the table halfway through his 2018 deal with Netflix to produce a string of TV shows for the Los Gatos, Calif.-based streaming giant. Barris’ critically acclaimed Black-ish has also spun off two other series, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish. He also co-created and produced America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. Hemade his acting debut in #blackAF, a series he developed for Netflix, co-starring Jones and Iman Benson.
Jones, also a southern California native, is the younger daughter of media mogul, producer, and musician Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton. An American actress, director, writer, and producer. She also has roles on the Fox drama series Boston Public, the NBC comedy series The Office, the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation. More recently, she starred as the lead in the TBS comedy series Angie Tribeca and the Netflix series #blackAF.
As a filmmaker, she was an executive producer and director for the Hot Girls Wanted, a series that focused on the sex industry. In 2018, her documentary Quincy about her father debuted on Netflix, where it won the Grammy Award for Best Music Film in 2019.
Thomas is an acclaimed television and film screenwriter and producer from Kansas City, Kan. Thomas began his professional career as a writer’s assistant on the TV series Soul Food. Since then, he has written and produced episodes for other TV series, including Friday Night Lights, Numb3rs, CSI:NY and currently S.W.A.T.. His feature film screenwriting credits include Weapon, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Cover, directed by Bill Duke.
Under the unprecedented deal with Viacom, BET Studios will create premium television series and films for an array of internal buyers, including Paramount+, SHOWTIME, CBS, Nickelodeon, BET+ and BET, in addition to select third-party platforms that seek content from leading and rising Black creatives. BET Studios will launch with Thomas.
“The demand for premium content from Black creators has accelerated dramatically as a result of both the rapidly changing media and social landscapes. BET, with our 40-year legacy of celebrating Black culture, and the full power of the ViacomCBS ecosystem—is uniquely positioned to service this demand,” said BET President Scott Mills. “As a company with its origin in Black entrepreneurship, we are incredibly excited to create the first major studio to provide Black creators with ownership, creative freedom and the unparalleled partnership and support of BET. I am thrilled to have Aisha at the helm of this venture, and I look forward to our collaboration with our amazing creative partners in BET Studios.”
“BET Studios is an exciting and novel extension of the storied BET brand, and we have a structure well-suited to our times to bring top talent into this production company with real ownership,” added Showtime Chairman and CEO David Nevins, who recently added Viacom’s Paramount+ to his creative portfolio. “Scott Mills deserves tremendous credit for driving this innovative new business from idea to reality – and Kenya, Rashida and Aaron, could not be a more talented or in-demand group to lead this venture along with Aisha Summers.”
BET Studios will be headed by Aisha Summers Burke, who was recently appointed Executive Vice-President and General Manager of the new venture. In this role, Burke will be responsible for working collaboratively with the Studio’s formidable creative partners and key internal constituencies. Along with overseeing the day-to-day creative affairs for the company, she will also be responsible for the BET Studios content slate and focusing on growing the Studio’s production output across both internal and external platforms. She will report to BET’s Mills.
“BET has long been celebrated for excellence in producing quality programming that authentically depicts experiences lived within the Black community,” said Burke. “With the launch of BET Studios, we are excited to introduce a new model that opens the aperture to a broad array of platforms and supports the full range of content from Black creators. This entrepreneurial environment offers creatives the opportunity to produce diverse high-end content reflecting all aspects of entertainment.”
Prior to joining BET, Burke spent thirteen years at Warner Bros. Television, most recently serving as vice-president of scripted television for the cable and streaming division of Warner Horizon before it merged with Warner Bros. TV in 2020.
According to Viacom officials, BET Studios will operate with nimble teams of dedicated staff for the three Black producers. This group will utilize the BET and larger ViacomCBS infrastructure and shared services to support day-to-day tactics. Although no financial details were provided concerning Barris, Jones and Thomas’ financial stake in the new studio venture, Viacom will also back the Black producers with a broad array of creative talent that will partner with BET to get the venture off the ground.
“The investment being made by Scott, David Nevins, Bob Bakish and the ViacomCBS team into BET Studios is not only an investment in Black storytelling, it is also an investment in the culture,” said Barris. “And while individual success is great, being able to amplify and champion underrepresented storytellers has been equally exciting and this venture allows that to continue to be a key focus in this next chapter of my career.”
“There is such power in the creative talent that the principal partners bring to the table and BET Studios’ unique ability to tell Black stories at scale,” said added Jones. “This joining of forces is super exciting for me in the multitude of ways that people of color see themselves represented on screen.”
“As a new venture, BET Studios offers an opportunity to expand the brand’s legacy of delivering Black stories. This is a chance to bring nuanced, layered narratives to life, partnering with a forward-thinking team, interested in surprising and engaging the audience,” concluded Thomas.
Headquartered in Manhattan, ViacomCBS global entertainment and TV portfolio includes such brands as CBS, Showtime Networks, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, BET, Paramount+, Pluto TV and Simon & Schuster, among others. Today, the New York City media conglomerate delivers the largest share of the U.S. television audience and boasts one of the industry’s most extensive libraries of TV and film titles.
In the first half of 2021, the New York City-based media giant reported revenues of nearly $14 billion, up from nearly $12.6 billion in the previous year. As it seeks to compete with the likes of Comcast subsidiary’s NBCUniversal, Netflix, Walt Disney and Discovery, Viacom added 6.5 million streaming subscribers in the second quarter to grow its base to 42 million users.
Viacom subsidiary BET has billed itself as the nation’s leader provider of entertainment, music, news, and public affairs television programming for the African American audience, although it is no longer Black-owned. The primary BET channel is now 90 million households globally and also includes BET streaming service and BET.com, a top news website for all things about Black entertainment, music and pop culture.
Other BET brands include BET HER, a 24-hour entertainment network targeting Black women; BET Music Networks – BET Jams, BET Soul and BET Gospel; BET Home Entertainment; BET Live, and BET’s growing festival business. Other offshoots include BET Mobile, which provides ringtones, games and video content for wireless devices; and BET International, which operates BET outside the U.S.
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