BET CEO Scott Mills talks Lil Nas X, Diddy and more – Billboard

It will be “The greatest evening of culture”. That’s what BET Networks promises when the 2022 BET Awards go live on Sunday, June 26 at 8 p.m. EST.

And with host Taraji P. Henson presiding over a lineup of performances that includes a newly added Lil Wayne joining Lizzo, Jack Harlow, Latto, Muni Long, Roddy Ricch and more, the promise feels more like a guarantee. And that’s not counting the artists who will pay tribute to this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Sean “Diddy” Combs: Mary J. Blige, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Faith Evans and Bryson Tiller, among others.

“This year we said, ‘Let’s really look at the music,’ says BET CEO Scott Mills. “And it’s going to be awesome.”

The awards ceremony is not without controversy, however. Earlier this month, Lil Nas X slammed the BET Awards after receiving no nominations this year despite his continued success since receiving Best New Artist of 2020 (Roddy Ricch ended up winning this that year). “Thanks to betting rewards. again zero outstanding nominations,” Lil Nas X tweeted at the time. He continued, “I just feel like black gay people have to fight to be seen in this world and even when we get to the top mfs try to pretend we’re invisible.”

BET responded with a statement noting the artist’s 2020 nomination and his performances on the show in 2019 and 2021, saying in part, “We love Lil Nas X…. At BET, we’re passionate advocates for the wonderful diversity that exists within our community.” That didn’t stop Lil Nas X, however. On June 24, he released a new network-targeted song called “Late to Da Party” featuring YoungBoy Never Broke Again.

Mills spoke with Billboard about Lil Nas X, how he networked brands to expand his reach 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 sparked discussions about revising BET’s nominating process?

I haven’t spoken to him. However, we deeply appreciate and respect Lil Nas X, so we were caught off guard by this claim. We work very hard to be extraordinarily inclusive in everything we do in terms of award shows and representations in our film and television content. Despite the hard work we do, we need to understand that there might be opportunities for improvement in some of our practices. So we review our processes to identify blind spots that could have contributed to results. We will do this exercise because we are committed to ensuring that we are sensitive to any potential for unconscious bias.

This is the 22nd year of the awards. What kind of spectacle can viewers expect?

There’s some great talent we’ve already gone public with, but you know Connie Orlando [BET executive vp of specials, music programming & music strategy] likes to keep a few surprises in her back pocket…and she’s definitely holding onto something. Plus, as you can imagine, Diddy, the lifetime achievement award winner, doesn’t do anything modest. So the performance that will celebrate it is totally brilliant. As you noted, this is the 22nd year of the BET Awards. And I love when people can bring a creative approach that still excites you, even if you’ve seen or attended 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 streaming the BET Awards on LOGO, MTV, VH1 and TV Land like we did last year, the roster has expanded to include Comedy Central and Pop. There is 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 achievement in our community. One of the things I appreciate about Diddy is how he constantly evolves and finds new spaces to succeed; his extraordinary journey of transformation is truly fascinating. When we honor and celebrate people, what we’re also doing is telling our community that these are things we appreciate, things we should be showing. He started out as a musical impresario, then a producer, rapper and businessman. This whole arc is really a great message to convey this year. Next year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, so our honorees and our show will be anchored in this celebration.

Why no BET Experience music and entertainment festival or a Humanitarian Award winner this time around?

The music and entertainment festival will definitely be back next year. The reason there isn’t this year is because when we should have made a series of long-term commitments in December and January, there was still such uncertainty around the state of the pandemic. And we wanted to prioritize safety. It was above all. But we already have a team working to bring back a completely standout experience in 2023. Because there were so many opportunities to feature so many amazing artists and performances on this year’s show, we’re not distributing the humanitarian award this time. But we will present a great pro-social philanthropic moment during the show.

In addition to the BET Awards, the network annually presents the BET Hip-Hop Awards, Soul Train Awards, and NAACP Image Awards. With award shows at all levels facing lower ratings and other issues, why is awards still such a big BET franchise?

Among the plethora of award shows, there’s nothing in the world quite like the BET Awards. It’s fundamentally different from anything, whether it’s the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, or the MTV Video Music Awards. One of the most powerful lines of our culture is music. So at this intersection, no other show is authentically African American like the BET Awards. It is something that only we can do. We’ve been saying it for a long time: it’s like the Black Super Bowl. And our partners are big companies like Procter and Gamble, Pepsi and McDonald’s among others. They see it as a great opportunity to engage with our community, and the show is doing extraordinarily well. He’s generating more revenue in 2022 than he’s ever generated in the franchise.

The success we have with other awards shows is down to how we position them. In the case of the Image Awards, we felt it was vital to create a platform that shows the world, not just our community, what black creative excellence looks like. train of souls is an iconic, fun, and engaging show made at a different price than the BET Awards with many advertisers keen 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 a significant force in our awards franchise. Overall, we love being there for all artists and our partners value these shows as a platform to engage with the black community. For many people, it’s not just price discounts. It’s about the special relationship these shows represent to the community.

In January 2023, you will celebrate your fifth anniversary at the helm of BET. What was your vision for the network when you came back in 2018 and your vision now?

It’s about serving our community. When Viacom, now Paramount, asked me to take the helm, I decided to do so because I understood that we had a big 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 the direction the industry is heading – that would keep it on track so it could continue to thrive and prosper in the future. So I built plans for what it would entail to build an ecosystem; understand that while the cable business was this extremely valuable platform, we needed to create additional platforms so that we could create an ecosystem where we would share content, talent, audience, and revenue. And in doing so, we would grow and be able to bring more content, talent, audience, and revenue into this machine.

As part of this, we have launched the BET+ streaming service [in 2019] and the BET Studios platform [with Paramount last year]. In addition to BET and BET+, we also serve a wider range of select third-party platforms so we can be competitive in pursuing any major black talent. Writer/producer/director Kenya Barris left Netflix to come to BET. We made a deal with Tyler Perry when I was an administrative director at Viacom around 2017 or so. At the time, he was partnered with Oprah Winfrey and Discovery. And people were like, ‘You can’t get Tyler to leave Oprah.’ Building the studio 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 is your response to naysayers who question whether BET can maintain its cultural roots since it is now part of Paramount and no longer belongs to blacks?

In May, 50 Cent had a meeting with me and my team, including our head of studio, head of business and legal affairs, and head of unscripted content. And 50 Cent was like, “Damn, that’s a beautiful piece.” And I said, “Have you ever had a presentation meeting in a room like this before?” And he said, “Never.” The point is that the meeting was not contrived; we have a small fraction of undiverse people on our leadership team. But BET is run and run by black people. That’s the network: firmly attached to our black culture. And we didn’t just want to do checks, go along with Netflix and things. We really wanted to do something to address the problem of racism in the industry. So when we created BET Studios, we also started giving guest black creators a stake in the platform.

As 2023 approaches, what is the biggest challenge facing the media industry?

It will be a very difficult period. The media industry was already riding through a storm before these economic headwinds began. Thanks to the ecosystem we’ve created at BET, we’re a 42-year-old media company that achieved double-digit growth last year [BET’s total revenue rose 19% in 2021 vs. the previous year]. In such an economic environment, it is natural for people to cut spending, cut spending, and cut spending. So we really have to manage fiscal discipline to get through this turbulent period. It’s not going away in a few months. So how can we ensure that this amazing engine we’ve built continues to thrive? It’s balance.