By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Named for the location of its original Manhattan studio, 106th & Park is the most successful legacy from BET's first programming upheaval. In 2001, after the BET studios had moved to New York, the network went after a younger audience. Hosts in their thirties were replaced by hosts in their early twenties. Dark sets were livened up with bubble-gum pink, yellows, and neon lights. Skirts got shorter and pants hung lower. BET went for hip instead of mature.
The most successful show to come from that reincarnation (and one of the few still on the air) was 106th & Park. The daily Top 10 video show has been a consistent money maker; advertisers are pitched on the chance to reach millions of teens with cash to spend on cell phones, sneakers, music and video games.
As Hill observes: "106th & Park allowed us to really define our demographic. This business we are in is about catering to a niche. Every other cable channel was doing that except for BET. We all agreed that the best way for us to go was to target 18- to 30-year-olds."
Today's show is jam-packed. There are nine live performances, including by Kanye West, T-Pain, and Plies, and six amateur groups battling it out in an r&b installment of "Wild Out Wednesday," a weekly talent competition. Kanye's performance includes a string mini-orchestra. It's the first time ever that there's been a harp on the 106th stage. The audience, meanwhile, sings along to every word.
"BET damn near raised me," says current 106th & Park co-host Terrence J. "BET is the black voice, and it is entertainment. 106th & Park transcends all age ranges," he adds, though no one in the audience looks over 22.
"I'm from Virginia, and I've been waiting outside for three hours," says Toya, 19. "I had to see my baby, Chris Brown."
Asked about the network's new offerings, the mostly young women waiting for the show to start said that, hands down, they loved the new shows.
"Hell Date is mad funny," says a girl wearing fishnet stockings on her arms. The show pairs unsuspecting daters with actors who make the outing a wild adventure.
"At one point, BET did get a little boring," yells one girl from the top seat on the mini-bleachers. "All they played was videos. It's much better now."
"I know I shouldn't, but I like Hot Ghetto Mess," says a young woman named Michelle. "It's funny."
Stephen Hill doesnt mind your complaints, as long as youre watching.
photo: Arnold Turner/ BET Networks
"At NABJ, our booth was packed with young reporters and producers who wanted to know what opportunities we have," says Keith Brown, vice president of news. "I think they see BET News as a way for them to get a voice for once."
Meanwhile, more new shows are on the way. If Gina McCauley and Rainbow/PUSH didn't like We Got to Do Better, they're going to loathe BUFU. An animated sketch-comedy series debuting this fall, the show is hosted by former MADtv actor Orlando Jones. In one clip, a sketch called "Who Needs They Ass Whopped?", a thirteen-year-old mother, with kids in tow, is a contestant on a game show. Her goal is to listen to three men and find out which one is telling the truth about being a good-for-nothing baby daddy. The contestants include an NBA player who can barely speak properly, a smooth playa dressed in a suit, and a European ballplayer who doesn't speak English. Social commentary on the decline of the black family structure? Yes. Slightly offensive? Indeed. Funny? Absolutely.
Another series goes right at the divide between BET and its critics. Titled Hip Hop vs. America, the show is a three-part town- hall meeting.
"There seems to be no bigger hot-button issue than rap lyrics," says Hudlin about Hip Hop vs. America. "People are more interested in it than three kids being executed in Newark, or the woman who was gang-raped in Florida."
In the show, Nellythe poster child for hip-hop's ills after his video for "Tip Drill," which included a shot of him swiping a credit card in the crack of a bikini-clad womanis among the most vocal panel members. The backlash against his video, he says, prevented him from holding a bone-marrow search for his ailing sister, who eventually died from leukemia. "I wanted to have a bone-marrow drive at Spelman College to not only find a donor for my sister, who is no longer here, but to educate the community about the disease," says the rapper on the show.
Still, Hudlin knows that maintaining a news division and holding town-hall meetings won't convince some that BET isn't failing all black Americans.
"There is a reservoir of anger over what BET has or hasn't been. I can't do anything about that," he says. "We're creating a network that is for black people and the people who love them. We are creating shows for the most creative people on earth."