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So What Do You Do, Stephen Hill, BET President of Programming and Specials?

What do you need to succeed in TV? 'Perseverance, drive and absolute passion'

By Janelle Harris - June 27, 2013
L.A. is already a busy town full of beautiful people, and it's made even busier and more beautiful in this last week leading up to the BET Awards. At the crux of the increasing pomp and anticipation before the show airs live on June 30 is Stephen Hill who, for the better part of a decade, has designed programming for Black Entertainment Television, the network behind the event.

For a long time, BET has been the cable TV whipping boy for disgruntled critics who accuse it of having a pithy lineup and showcasing stereotypical imagery of African-Americans. Yet, it's Hill who has steadily broadened BET's offerings with special events and original shows, like Real Husbands of Hollywood, a semi-scripted reality program and the No. 1 prime-time sitcom among all adults 18-49. Now, those same critics, while still there, have been force-fed a big handful of hush-up.

"If you're looking for music, we've got that," Hill told us. "If you're looking for spiritual upliftment, we've got that. If you're looking for laughs, we've got that. With the coming of Being Mary Jane, if you're looking for drama, we've got that. That represents a variety. No one culture is monolithic, right?"

Name: Stephen G. Hill
Position: President of music programming and specials for BET
Resume: Program director at Brown University's college station, WBRU-FM and, eventually, WILD-AM in Boston. Launched 24-hour format for ABC Radio Network's roster of urban music. Served as executive producer for the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Transitioned to television as director of music programming for MTV, hand picking videos and working with talent. Joined BET in 1999 as executive VP of entertainment and music programming and currently serves as president of music programming and specials.
Hometown: Southeast Washington, D.C.
Education: Brown University
Marital status: Single
Media idol: Radio disc jockey and BET personality Donnie Simpson
Favorite show: The White Shadow
Guilty pleasure: Scandal
Last book read: Bossypants by Tina Fey
Twitter handle: @StephenGHill

Tell us what a typical or interesting week is like for you at the office.
So, this is a particularly interesting week as we get ready for the BET Awards. Today, we had a conversation with Charlie Wilson about his tribute, and we've got some surprises in that. We're working with R. Kelly on his medley. He's got a very interesting idea that we're working around. We're working with Mariah Carey's stage set and how she'll be revealed in the show. At the same time, I had a strategy call with the other senior executives at BET yesterday, looking at projections for the next few quarters. Altogether, it's a great balance of the creative and the analytical.

"People who had an opinion of the old BET need to be willing to adjust that opinion for the new one."

BET gets a lot of criticism seemingly no matter what it does. How much viewer feedback do you take into consideration when programming, and what do you think it will take to finally change people's perception of the network?
I think it takes a couple of things. One, I'll stand by what we've done over the last few years, and that's to bring outstanding programming to the screen, whether it's Being Mary Jane with Gabrielle Union or Real Husbands of Hollywood, the BET Awards, the BET Honors. The second thing: people who had an opinion of the old BET need to be willing to adjust that opinion for the new one. Both of those things have to happen for people to change their minds or get another opinion. As with anything, you have to be open to change.

Meanwhile, BET has made a marked effort to broaden its original programming and even holds its own upfronts now. Why did it take so long for the network to produce shows like these, when your sister network MTV and VH1 have been doing the same things for years?
That's a very sticky question. I don't want to assess other decisions that have been made. All I can say is I think [Loretha Jones, BET president of original programming] has been carrying the flag since she came on board, and our offerings since then have increased. I can't speak as to why it didn't happen before. I know it's happening now, and we're extremely successful with it.

TV One has been nipping on BET's heels with several successful shows that many think BET should have run years ago. As a programming exec, what is your strategy for fending them off?
We're glad that people have finally realized that there can be more than just one network that's attractive to African-American viewers. Sometimes it's tough to take the whole of a culture on because there are geographic differences, age differences... Other cultures have more than one channel; we're glad people understand there can be more than one channel for African-Americans.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lauren Dolgen, EVP of Series Development for MTV?

This year is the first time the BET Awards will be open to the public, and you've added a series of concerts for fans called the BET Experience. Your event sounds an awful lot like the Essence Music Festival, which takes place the week after yours. How much did Essence's success inspire yours, and are there any concerns that the two events might cannibalize each other?
The BET Experience is really built around the BET Awards, because the BET Awards has been airing on the last week of June for the last 10, 11, 12 years or so. People would come out to L.A. for the BET Awards without a ticket. They just wanted to be around the atmosphere, and it just became a magnet event, just the awards show. So, what we did was organize what was already organic. Take the energy that's already coming here, add some stuff to it and invite more people and make it the BET Experience. I don't think we would do this outside of the energy that's already been generated around the BET Awards.

And speaking of awards shows, BET produces a slew of them annually. Why so many of them, and are you working on any other shows to reach music fans?
We found them to be successful, because people are attracted to them. There are many times when people look at the general market award shows and say, "Why'd they ignore this actor?" or "Why'd they ignore this movie?" But we never get that question. We celebrate the achievements of African-Americans throughout the year, whether it's the BET Awards where we're doing music, movies and sports, or the BET Honors when we acknowledge people's lifetime achievements, or Black Girls Rock, which is really about empowering young, Black women -- those you've heard of and those you haven't heard of who are doing great things in the community. So we enjoy being able to celebrate our own.

Another BET mainstay is the video countdown show 106 & Park, which recently upped its number of co-hosts from two to four. What was the impetus for that change, and how is it working out?
That came from a conversation we had with [former co-hosts] Terrence and Rocsi as they were leaving. We asked them what things could possibly be done differently to energize the format, and one of them suggested maybe going to four hosts. The idea has been to have more variety, giving you two more people to possibly attach to as you watch the show. So, we're giving it a shot.

"We celebrate the achievements of African-Americans throughout the year."

Describe an "Aha! moment" in your career when you realized, "This is what I love doing." Can you remember the first time you had that thought?
I think one of the first ones was when Michael Jackson surprised James Brown during the presentation of his lifetime achievement award at the BET Awards '03. I was a huge fan of James Brown growing up and, of course, the Jackson Five. They were my second concert of all time, so to see two musical heroes on stage together giving each other love? I was like, "Oh, my gosh. Do I really get to do this for a living?" I feel like that every day, even on tough days when we're doing budget meetings. Even then, I feel like, OK, I know after this I'm going to be talking to an act I respect or doing a performance that the audience is going to love.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work behind the scenes in entertainment television? What three qualities do you need to be successful?
Last question first: perseverance, drive and absolute passion. Perseverance is when people say no, you have the ability to keep going. Drive is when you say, "I know I'm tired but I've got to stay up. I have to keep moving on this project, because when I turn it in my manager is going to like it and I'm going to go to the next level." And passion is like, "I don't want to do anything else but this. This is all I want to do." It's crucial, especially in this industry, because so many people want to be in entertainment. I think the entry into it is deceptively easy. My advice is be an intern. I told someone this 10 years ago, and I ran into them recently and they were like, "You were right." It doesn't matter what the level of the job is. Once you show the value you're able to bring, you can move around in an organization to get to what you really want to do. There are a lot of ex-assistants and ex-production assistants who are now at lofty levels in entertainment companies. That's because once you're in, you show your drive, passion and perseverance, and good things can come of it.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lauren Dolgen, EVP of Series Development for MTV?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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