For decades, the annual award shows hosted by TV network, BET, have marked an important moment to celebrate Black excellence and honor Black achievements. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many in-person events large and small were cancelled or severely postponed. However, the BET team pressed on to find novel ways of celebrating black excellence – from the summer BET Awards to the Soul Train Awards that wrapped up the 2020 Thanksgiving weekend. BET has now produced three COVID-safe award shows. Innovative virtual solutions allowed the network to share its most anticipated events, boasting jaw-dropping live performances and drawing some of the biggest names in pop culture.
And at no time was the celebration of Black excellence and achievement more pivotal than the summer of 2020, amid protests for racial justice and a pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black communities. Whatever BET and viewers were expecting for the 2020 award show, COVID-19 changed the plans. While BET was determined that the show must go on, producers had a huge challenge in front of them–the types of restrictions that come with a pandemic were ones that crews hadn’t dealt with before. It could be chaos, it could be awkward, it could be boring, but to Connie Orlando, BET Executive Vice President and Head of Original Programming, it was an opportunity to do something completely new.
“It’s a huge behemoth of a show. It’s one of our most important and most recognized…. How do you live up to the expectation that the audience and the artists have, in this new world?” Orlando explained to NCTA. “So once we got over the fright of how to do it, I think we all had the lightbulb moment like, ‘Hey! You have to change your perspective on it.’” That’s when Orlando said things started to click. “Instead of feeling like you’re limited because you’re not able to do what you’ve traditionally done, you look at it and think, it might be cool that we’re not on a stage! Because a stage itself is very limiting. Once we started wrapping our heads around ‘this is the BET Awards without limits,’ it allowed artists and BET to be as creative as possible.”
The road wasn’t easy. For instance, crews could only work in very small numbers while also maintaining personal and public safety precautions. Thankfully, BET’s parent company, ViacomCBS, assembled a COVID-19 task force whose job it was to ensure any production was safe and adhered to health guidelines as well as local regulations. Celebrity guests, hosts and performers also had a tricky hand delt to them. Amanda Seales, this year’s host, assembled the green screen and the entire filming setup in her living room completely by herself, all before hosting the whole program flawlessly.
The network was also determined to speak to the challenges of 2020 during the show, both in the context of the pandemic and the historic protests that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. For BET, the Awards in and of themselves have always stood as a powerful statement. “Even if we were on the stage, I think it still would have been the same show in terms of tone and tenor,” Orlando explained. “It’s a celebration of culture and Black excellence, but we also made a statement…I think what we forget sometimes is that artists for decades have been vehicles for social impact and change with their music and art. This was a beautiful collective showing that from the artist perspective, showing it from the network perspective, and cohesively it was just a beautiful thing that checked all the boxes in real, authentic ways.”
Despite all the unexpected challenges, the 2020 BET Awards were a resounding success. “We learned how to do more with less, that was key.” Orlando reflected. “The fact that the show was produced with the limited amount of folks we had is still mind blowing. We learned how to use resources in a different way.”
That lesson might be one of the most valuable these days, with live events still restricted, and is one that Orlando says guided the network’s approach for the Hip Hop Awards and Soul Train awards later in the year. “We have a good model to say we did this here, we learned tremendous lessons. As painful as it was and as much as we had to learn…. [it] will kind of be the blueprint moving forward for a lot of things we do.” Orlando explained.
Audiences saw the results of all that hard work and creativity on October 27 when BET hosted the annual Hip Hop Awards. Vice Presidential candidate—now Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris even made a surprise appearance at the awards show to urge viewers to let their voices be heard at the polls.
The BET blueprint was put to the test again for the Soul Train Awards on November 29 which celebrates the role and contributions of soul and R&B artists to black culture. For the Soul Train Awards BET melded small in-person performances with virtual elements to engage audiences.
Though this year has been unpredictable, BET’s resilience and creativity around their award shows marks just one example of how TV networks are driving the future of production. We are seeing how brilliant entertainment can make us feel connected and together, even when people are far apart.