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BET calls on A-list to help celebrate 25 years

Mike Hughes Gannett News Service

When the BET channel airs its 25th-anniversary party Tuesday night, it will be soaked with star power.

Plans call for music from Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Nelly, Snoop Dogg and more. There also will be appearances by a variety of stars, including Queen Latifah, Usher and Arsenio Hall.

That’s the kind of lineup the cable channel has been able to grab lately, for anything from awards shows to a hurricane fund-raiser.

“The number of A-list performers has been amazing,” says Reginald Hudlin, BET’s president of entertainment.

It’s also a far cry from the old days.

“BET, in its early days, was not a pretty sight,” Donnie Simpson, one of the network’s first stars, says with a laugh. “It looked like a public-access channel.”

These days BET is in a corporate comfort zone. It reaches 80 million homes. Five years ago, it was sold for $3 billion to Viacom, placing it among other huge network giants: CBS, MTV and Showtime.

“It’s always growing,” says musician Verdine White, whose Earth, Wind & Fire videos boosted the early days.

“Bob Johnson is a visionary,” White adds of the network’s founder.

Even visionaries start slowly. Two and a half years after going on the air in 1980, BET – then called Black Entertainment Television – reached 8 million homes, but only for three hours a week.

In order to start a daily schedule, on Aug. 15, 1982, it had to switch satellites and start over with only 2 million homes.

“I had to get one of those big, old satellite dishes,” says Simpson. “That was just so I could watch BET and (basketball games with) Michael Jordan.”

Back then, Simpson was a radio personality in Washington, D.C., and a TV sportscaster. In 1983, BET asked him to host an expanded version of “Video Soul,” six hours a week.

The facilities were primitive, he recalls. The “Video Soul Awards” were in the regular studio, except carpenters rigged up a podium.

Black videos also were scarce. “We only had about 25 of them,” Simpson says.

There were a few good ones from the flashiest bands. The first video he played was “Atomic Dog,” by George Clinton. An early favorite was “Let’s Groove,” from Earth, Wind & Fire.

Still, there were barriers. Record labels were reluctant to shoot videos that wouldn’t get time on MTV.

“Black artists did not get the air time,” Simpson says. “You had to practically be No. 1 to be seen.”

That started to change, he says, with the 1983 debut of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Chaka Kahn and Tina Turner followed, and black videos kept growing.

The reluctance of other channels may have boosted BET. As Earth, Wind & Fire’s White sees it, rap was one of the strongest forces to propel the network: “MTV wasn’t playing hip-hop.”

Simpson feels the biggest boost came from news. On Jan. 24, 1996, BET newsman Ed Gordon had a live, one-hour interview with O.J. Simpson after the former football star was acquitted on murder charges.

“That was just huge for the network,” Donnie Simpson says.

Still, it was music that people noticed. Simpson interviewed Boyz II Men on BET when they seemed like shy college kids.

“Years later … these guys were on top of the world,” he says. “They seemed just as excited. They told me the exact date they were on the show the first time.”

Some people complain that music still overshadows everything else on BET. The channel runs various music shows from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays; it often rounds out the schedule with old sitcoms, old movies and new stand-up comedy shows.

Exceptions – including “Ultimate Hustler,” sort of an urban-music “Apprentice” – have been rare.

Shouldn’t there be more variety?

“Audiences have been very clear about that,” says Hudlin, the entertainment president. “They want situation comedies, sports, reality, dramas. They want everything – and so do I.”

Simply churning out shows isn’t a solution, he says: “Our demographic is the most creative, cutting-edge people in the world. We can’t just do knock-off programs.”

Hudlin, who brings impressive experience as a director (“House Party,” “Boomerang”), producer and writer, won’t announce any new shows yet. But he promises BET will seem fresh.

“I know the frustration of taking the next big idea to a network and not being able to get anyone interested,” he says. “That won’t happen here.”

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