- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 1999

BET Holdings Inc. is pouring $5 million into its first national advertising campaign to secure a niche market and expand its audience and programming.
“You never want to assume that you’re always going to be number one,” said Michael Lewellen, vice president of corporate communications for BET, which owns Black Entertainment Television.
The news comes as the Washington, D.C.-based company celebrates its 20th anniversary and is in the midst of a wave of bad publicity.
But the timing of the negative media reports and the ad campaign is “coincidental,” Mr. Lewellen said.
“We’re seizing the window of our 20th anniversary to continue to build on that position of strength that we already have.”
The number of cable systems subscribing to BET grows every year, rising 13 percent from 1997 to 58.5 million households in 1999. Many cable subscribers say BET is their favorite television station, according to a survey the company conducted this year.
That kind of response and growth shows that the company is responding to its prosperity, Mr. Lewellen said.
“It’s certainly a solid audience and it does grow,” Mr. Lewellen said.
The network will provide news and other programming in addition to its popular music format.
“NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox also pour money into advertising,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University.
“BET is realizing from the proliferation that there is increasing competition,” he said.
The company has come under fire from critics who think that BET does not treat blacks fairly, by using stereotypes. However, even critics agree that most mainstream media also could be accused of that.
The network also has been accused of paying its stand-up comics poorly.
“There is criticism of things that [BET does] and their programming,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a regulatory lawyer and president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit, public-interest D.C. law firm. “There are also complaints about the violence and sex, and that happens with MTV and everything else.”
Mr. Schwartzman said BET is smart to invest in advertising to get noticed and secure a niche in the black television market. That may bring in money to improve programming.
Mr. Lewellen said any accusations of negative images of blacks on the network or that BET comedians are underpaid is “unfounded and shortsighted” and irrelevant to the announcement of the marketing strategy.
Mr. Steinhorn agreed with company officials that the negative publicity is unsupported. He said other networks, like WB and Fox, depict blacks in the same light.
“I just think it’s corporate realism. Welcome to the last year of the 20th century,” Mr. Steinhorn said. “They have to brand themselves and create a greater visibility.”
Advertising is critical to run a business successfully, he said. Even with negative publicity surrounding its reputed treatment of blacks, the Eddie Bauer retailing chain, Denny’s restaurants and Coca-Cola continue to advertise.
“They aren’t advertising because of bad press,” he said. “My hunch is that this is the same logic.”

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