BET Media Group CEO Scott Mills‘ foray into television was not a linear path; he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; he initially began his career as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers and at the age of 23, worked briefly as a Deputy Treasurer of the City of Philadelphia. Later, he reverted to investment banking and acquired the position of Lead Director of Principal Financial Group Inc.
“He wanted to buy an NBA franchise, and he hired the investment bank for which I worked, Lehman Brothers, to advise him on how to raise the capital to buy a team. We worked on that project, and it turned out to be far more complicated than any of us expected,” Mills admits. “I was the kid who was the technical banker on the structuring stuff and got to know Bob, and then there was another project we worked on, and then he called me.”
The conversation between Mills and Johnson came at an opportune moment when Mills had become disillusioned and unfulfilled with his career.
“I was at the point in my life where I realized that notwithstanding the role, these movies were telling me how amazing investment banking [but] I wasn’t finding it fulfilling. I had this understanding in the late eighties when I finished high school that suggested investment bankers were creating lots of value. But when I actually had the role, and I was doing well, what my experience was, the people that were creating the value were [who were raising] the money [for], raising money wasn’t the value creation that was just part of the process of enabling the value creators. I want to be a value creator; I don’t want to be an agent; I want to be a principal,” he declared.
Mills met with Johnson for dinner and implored him to join BET, which Mills admits he hesitated over the proposition because he had a business background that did not lend itself to the media industry. However, Johnson would not take ‘no’ for an answer and convinced Mills he had the acumen and the capabilities to generate calculated strategies and business planning to succeed in the capacity needed for the fledgling network. The former banker acquiesced and joined forces with the dynamic businessman. Mills intended to work with the network for only a short period due to the fluctuating nature of the field but endured to having a 26-year-long television career. His initial role was as the SVP of Strategy and Business Development. Within two years, Mills pitched Johnson an idea that would morph into BET Digital by reclaiming the assets licensed to Microsoft and expanding the network’s digital footprint in the formation of BET.com. Mills oversaw the game plan to inaugurate the digital vertical for the station.
“Then we sold the BET to then-Viacom, and I thought this is where I would leave. I hadn’t planned to be here as long as I’ve been, and then Bob and Deb Lee asked me if I would be Chief Financial Officer, which allowed me to go back to my kind of investment banking route. I could see the entire business that Bob had built, this kind of amazing machine. When you run the finance, you can see the water run through the pipes of the organization, as it were, and that was a lot of fun. But at the same time, I was allowed to grow other businesses while still leading digital and all these other things,” retells Mills, who received a promotion to Chief Operating Officer.
However, he still marinated in the thought of leaving the organization to follow other pursuits until the CEO of Viacom asked him if he would serve as the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer responsible for Human Resources, Media Technology Services, Real Estate, Programming Acquisitions, Facilities, and Security for the corporation’s global operations. Recognizing the profound value and respect that human resources bring to a firm, Mill still had reservations because, historically, corporate America places Black executives in that role, and they are professionally defined by that rank but ultimately decided to become the Chief Administrative Officer for Viacom.
Subsequently, Debra L. Lee decided to retire and step down as BET’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, and then Viacom asked him to run the company. Struck by the proposal to maintain an influential media brand, Mills thought it would be a two-year assignment to place the enterprise as a forerunner of Black entertainment for the next 15 years. Yet, once he started working with team members, he realized the exponential potential that BET could reach and shifted into the title of President before ascending to CEO. He describes his leadership style as being responsible for establishing a vision and an aspirational destination by providing context on why achieving that desired goal is essential. In business, assembling an extraordinary team of diverse talents, backgrounds, and creativity is paramount to success.
BET executive team is 50% new leadership members since Mills returned in 2018, which he attributes to the evolution of the media business. The fleet of C-suite principals includes a blend of tenured, deep subject matter experts and executives from an array of organizations like Unilever to lead brand marketing functions. “Kimberly Paige, who is our Chief Marketing Officer, Brian Rikuda, our newest executive hire, brings all the great training and background being a consultant at McKinsey and Company to help us advance our strategy and advance our practices,” he lists, continuing, “Devin Griffin runs the streaming service that we brought over from Netflix to lead BET Plus and Aisha Summers Burke from Warner Brothers to BET Studios. We recognize this opportunity to promote internally, which is important. Still, being a leader, it’s also important to understand when opportunities are present to bring incremental expertise, talent, and experience to an organization.”
Other essential team members include Connie Orlando, Executive Vice President, Specials, Music Programming, Music Strategy, and News at BET Networks specializes in overseeing the music and original programming. Tiffany Williams, a former executive producer for MTV Studios, serves as BET’s EVP for Unscripted Programming Development.
“I could not be more excited about the team; it is wildly diverse and majority female. The other thing I love is there’s a material portion of the execs who are HBCU and IVY league alum. I think [our] leadership team is reflective of the diversity of our Black community,” he points out, which aided him in establishing a robust objective. His first order of business was to develop the company’s function beyond just a television platform and requested that Paramount Global, then Viacom, invest significant capital in his initiative.
“One of the pillars was doing this groundbreaking partnership with Tyler Perry. I pitched that deal back in the early 2000s at BET. Shortly after we’d sold ourselves, I think it was 2005 to 2006, 2007, I shared with then-Viacom leadership that Tyler was doing something powerful that resonated with Black consumers and that it made sense to have that in this BET universe,” he says, recognizing that Perry sought specific details, conditions of the contract within a deal package with the cable channel.
The leadership team at the time dismissed the potential partnership; Mills surmises that the stance of the C-suite managerial staff was analogous to how when Pixar Animation Studios emerged, it engaged in direct competition with Walt Disney World, which later acquired computer animation outfit into its ecosystem.
“[Robert] Iger had that vision, and then Disney’s animation was more successful, and they had Pixar, so I had a similar vision for what we should be doing at BET and then full circle under the new leadership at Viacom, ‘I said this was a big strategic idea that we had for BET, it’s much more complicated now because Tyler’s in a deal with Oprah Winfrey over it at OWN and Discovery. So it would have been a straightforward deal to do back when I pitched it, but to Viacom’s credit, they saw the logic, stepped up, and supported doing this groundbreaking deal,” he informs.
An added benefit for notable creators like Perry and Gabrielle Union partnering with BET Studios is they also receive equity. “I give Paramount Global a lot of credit for this; when we said there’s a real opportunity here, equity is important to Black creators, they came back and said, ‘we will support the creation of an equity opportunity inside BET studios. I don’t think any other major media company has created a platform allowing participants to have equity in the studio. I think that was a real reflection of Paramount’s respect for the Black community and openness to issues specific to us,” Mills says.
Perry said his partnership with the media group is vital because the company will move forward and recruit new talent, “In this climate, where content is king, I’m invested in BET Plus’ growth [and in] discovering new talent, bringing Black creators to the forefront, and telling new stories in ways that are relatable to our people.” Finally equipped with the support to implement his broad strategic framework, Mills moved on to construct a streaming platform because he observed consumers’ material migration out of the linear cable media and knew for the company to remain relevant to the Black community, it could not solely operate as a cable entity.
“What that entailed for us was envisioning where the world was going, and then saying, how do we position ourselves such that the BET will be everywhere, so streaming was a pretty obvious point. But the second thing was, and not abandoning linear, that was the other key, there ‘s still going to be a big portion of our population that’s deeply going to value that traditional kind of linear TV offering. So let’s continue to support that, let’s build out this other offering, and then equally, let’s understand it, the way the world is evolving, not every person that we’re trying to reach is going to be accessible via BET and BET+, they’re scattered across this streaming ecosystem,” Mills astutely evaluated. To ensure he captured the late majority and laggards, he established BET Studios to create branded content and have the ability to sell it to Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix; the BET brand will be ever-present for those consumers and aid in effectuating the company’s goals.
“The success of the Tyler Perry deal has worked materially better than anyone projected,” he reports. Paramount Global, the parent company, witnessed everything Mills and his executives have accomplished and continued supporting the notable strategic moves Mills proposes.
“BET Plus is massively ahead of plan at this point, and I think in the context of all of that working well, and then the beautiful thing is because we’ve built this ecosystem of complementary platforms, our linear networks, streaming platform, studios platform, and digital platforms, they all support each other, and we restored growth to our linear platform,” he adds.
Constituting as a litmus test are the members of Black Twitter, a social media community composed of African-American users who coalesce around social, political, and economic issues and pop culture moments that pertain to the Black community. Many netizens have complained that popular streaming services such as Netflix have everything available and yet nothing they want to view; even the streaming platform launched its sub-brand Strong Black Lead.
Using Black Twitter as a catalyst, Mills instructed his staff to conduct primary, secondary, and qualitative research, like hosting focus groups around the country to present a cogent case before Viacom because the capital investment for the project would be significant.
“We know that Black Americans have an affinity for culturally oriented media, there’s a reason why BET is the most watched cable network among Black folks, but the question was, had the models the other streamers used have they filled the need of the Black consumer,” he queried, taking into account the significant players in the streaming service, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
“What came out in the research was that Black folks loved Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and general entertainment content, all in the 90 percentiles, Black folks were streaming. In late 2018, Black folks were streaming more than other populations. But two secondary research pieces of data came to light when we then asked those same folks, how do you feel about the Black content available on those services, the scores were double digits lower for every single platform, like Amazon, Hulu and that was the first thing to suggest that there’s a real opportunity here,” Mills discloses. “Then the second thing was that Nielsen, at the time, was generating reports on Netflix streaming patterns. They had a list of the top five shows watched by Black folks on Netflix, “Luke Cage” was on that list. But one of the things that were on the top five list was “The Office,” and we were like, there it is, we got to launch BET+ because the one thing in the world we know is “The Office” is amazing but it is never going to be a top-five show among Black folks. Right. So it evidenced that Black folks were consuming it not because they valued “The Office,” but because the things they wanted to consume weren’t there.”
The collected data and Mill’s comprehension of the needs of Black consumers became the foundation to build the model of BET+ in 2018, before Disney and Paramount+ or even HBO Max existed. Mills spent time determining the positioning of the streaming service and assured that it would supplement Black consumers who wanted a deep reservoir of premium culturally tailored content. For example, BET+ was the only streaming platform that carried the “Martin” television series, and having Tyler Perry, a partner of BET Studios, whose content has a deep resonance with Black audiences, has tremendously impacted the company’s bottom line.
“Equally, we know our audience has a huge affinity for Lee Daniels content. So then doing the “The Ms. Pat Show” and putting it on that platform, then going back to Martin Lawrence and saying how about the “Martin Reunion Special,” right in a place that has valued you and deeply respected you, [these two particular assets] existed to be this supplement our knowledge and understanding of a broad cross-section of the Black audience and [it was] designed to supplement those other services, not to compete,” Mills clarifies. The next step he took after launching BET+ was establishing distribution partners, speaking to Roku, Apple, and Amazon, and showcasing his plan to each company. Initially, he hesitated to exchange the accumulated data but resolved it was beneficial to share the information about the viewing patterns of Black audience members with video-on-demand.
When Mills met with Amazon, there were approximately thirteen people in the room who confirmed his market research statistics, “They were like, ‘we’ve got a huge base of Black streamers, they are active users, but we don’t have the array and volume of content that this audience wants and that’s what makes BET, for example, a top 10 channel on Amazon.” The dearth of quality African-American-focused cinema confirmed to Mills that adding streaming to BET’s repertoire was necessary.
“If you look at Amazon, they do clusters [which] they don’t tell you, but if you consume BET and Starz content, they bucket you, and then you’re in a group and what are the top pieces of content,” he says, imparting Amazon’s methodology of categorizing and gauging the success of specific programs. “Tyler’s “Zatima” and BET’s “The Impact Atlanta” within the cluster of all people consuming Black content across Amazon Prime’s platforms, BET’s content is number one and two,” he proudly states.
When discussing the lucrative deals, top-tier talent has landed with the network, such as Kenya Barris, Tyler Perry, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson, Mary J. Blige, Lena Waithe, and Lee Daniels to name a few; it bears the question, will Mills actively pursue other notable Black talents to acquire their projects before they seek out Netflix or Amazon. He acknowledges that his strategic goal in expanding the BET brand is different. Instead, he focuses on obtaining media that aligns with his company’s vision.
“Some talent can command extraordinary premiums for their content and offerings. I never want to stand in the way of an extraordinary person from our community realizing their full economic potential. When we did the deal to bring Kenya and Tyler to BET, we did not say, ‘well, you have to take a discount;’ no, we’ll give you a competitive market offering. That means we can only do that with some. Netflix has great deals with many people, but many people only go on Netflix if they can do that deal. I say to people; I don’t need all of your projects; I need the project from you that is perfect for our audience,” he says.
Mills candidly recalls Daniels saying that the only place he could do his show “Miss Pat” was on BET because the show’s premise is heavily steeped in African-American culture that it “scares everybody else.” For an influential public figure like LeBron James, who can command an unbelievable premium for his shows, Mills perceives there is a myriad of opportunities to involve James’ Spring Hill production company. “
Similarly, we work with Kevin Hart, another person that we love, we’ve got multiple projects with Kevin, our view is let’s do the projects with Kevin that are best for our audience and celebrate everything else that he is doing,” he says, adding that other celebrities like Taraji P. Henson and Gabrielle Union are also partners of BET Studios.
“We have a big overall deal with Mary J. Blige, and our approach is that we don’t have to be monopolistic. We have an amazing project in the works with Taraji that could have gone anywhere, but it’s such a perfect BET project, and there’ll be other things that we will market and sell to other places.”
The primary strategy is to work with exceptional talent and provide a creative environment that respects and values the Black community’s creators while supporting the breadth of their creative aspirations. A prime example would be how Mills connected with filmmaker Gerard McMurray who said in their meeting how he was disinterested in producing uplifting Black stories on the struggles of the African-Americans, which Mills champions. “I believe we have the opportunity to work with everyone, and the more people we work with, the more it inspires other people to say then, okay, we need to have a conversation with BET about a project,” he suggests.
Solidifying partnerships with celebrities who have recognizable brands will aid BET in carving out a significant market share in the streaming industry that will also attract people from other ethnic demographics.
“We didn’t create BET studios to create [only] Black content. We created a studio as a vehicle for Black creators of great content,” he pointedly expresses. “Kenya Barris is a Black creator of great content, and whether it’s Kenya, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, or Jenny Rice Hall, they’re creators of great content, and that content resonates broadly. Then we can figure out the opportunity. What are the ideal places to place those pieces of content?”
Mills is cognizant that his audience yearns to watch content that extends beyond the African-American struggle. At the same time, though stories will constantly remain foremost in telling to catalyze change in alleviating racial discrimination, many Black people desire escapism in the programs they consume.
When Mills returned to BET in 2018, he refined the company’s mission, “The mission is to entertain, engage, and empower the Black community. Engage and empowering are so powerful, why entertain, and the reality is, because of the nature of this country and of the experiences our community has in this country, having an escape where you are entertained, to have a little relief from some of the disproportionate hardships that somebody in our community are exposed to, is creating a lot of value for people. We do a ton of research and talk to our viewers, whether its our streaming, digital or linear viewers. They talk about BET’s role in their lives after a long day. The role that the BET awards play is seeing our community celebrated and our culture elevated, so we take that responsibility quite seriously.”
The network’s growth and evolution have also allowed the corporation to continue to grow its footprint through partnerships with such platforms as the American Black Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, and Urban World Film Festival, to name a few. BET’s increased development and channels to distribute its programs to a broader audience at different price points eventually caught the attention of the Primetime Emmy Awards. As a result, in 2022, the network received a distinct nomination for Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series, “The Ms. Pat Show.”
“We were up against like “Ted Lasso” and “Only Murders in the Building.” We didn’t win, but it was extraordinary; if you said four or five years ago, [would somebody] nominate BET in the category with “Ted Lasso,” “Only Murders in the Building, and “Abbott Elementary,” you would’ve said ‘no,’ and there we are, and that’s just the beginning because of this ecosystem we’ve built able to bring in talent to create extraordinary content that can live across all of these different platforms,” he says.
The methodology he uses to gauge the success of a show is to analyze the metrics on the streaming platforms, which are entirely different than the net metrics on linear television, and to consider the talent, the relevancy of the content, the audience size, and if there is a demand. For example, Tyler Perry’s “Sistas” is the number one scripted series among Black viewers on cable television.
“Nielsen will tell you how many people watched it within three days of when it aired. For Tyler’s content, you’ll see it does big numbers the day it airs, roughly a million people tuned into “Sistas” when it airs live, but then the number grows by 60% to 75% over the next three days of people getting it in on demand. The secondary metric of what’s time-shifted viewing is important because it shows the absolute demand for streaming. What we look for how a show does relative to its leading, and that is if we use a big show that we know has a big audience, and we introduce something behind it that’s new, we’re trying to get that audience, that big audience to embrace that thing that’s new. If that show can hold the big lead in that’s a great metric; if it loses it, that’s a bad metric,” he interprets.
He adds, “Another example, the BET Awards 2022, is the single most-watched cable award show of 2022. It’s not the most-watched Black show; it’s not the most watched among Black people; it’s the most-watched cable award show, period. That metric helps us to think about the value of the show when we shift to streaming; because we don’t have Nielsen data around our streaming service, we look at what fraction of total viewership the show capture when it goes up and how broadly across the service of all the millions of people [apart of] the BET Plus service engage with that piece of content. We constantly keep track of the top performing shows; here’s their reach and frequency.”
BET, launched in 1980, has sustained its position for featuring culturally relevant programming and continues to have a loyal customer base; however, like any other business acquiring new customers is vital for its longevity. Mills intends to grow the BET Plus subscriber base by leveraging the brands of the company’s partners and their shows by expanding their social footprint across all its platforms but using linear channels to promote and market all the offerings aggressively. For instance, Mills and his team decided the reboot of “College Hill” would reside on its streaming service and placed a teaser episode behind the airing of the BET Awards.
“That audience experienced that teaser, and then [we] sent them all to BET+, it did gigantic numbers and delivered gigantic growth because people were like,’ I want to go there,'” he says, continuing that he is laser-focused on identifying opportunities to expand the company’s age range demographics and targeted global markets. Basing his next venture on the acuity he gained as a former Vice President, he prioritized the markets he wanted to target for international expansion.
“We were able to get data that allowed us to triangulate arguably, the biggest opportunity for BET+ is actually in Brazil. It’s a combination of looking at where content from [our] creators and that we have a disproportionate supply where that content is disproportionately licensed around—looking at where other mainstream streaming services have the greatest penetration against Black populations around the world, and the absolute size. All the data has pointed to Brazil as a market where there should be excessive demand, which is exciting because I’ve always wanted to figure out how to get there. So it’s not done yet, but it’s showing up as an [auspicious] opportunity and one that we should be able to pursue in 2023,” he says with a gleam in his eye.
Mills bases his confidence in the healthy growth of the BET on securing a larger audience and future subscribers by relying heavily on the intersection of content, community, and culture. Gathering data and metrics are the tools Mill uses to prudently grow his company and create verticals complimentary to the brand, like the planning of future podcasts. Another strength of the media firm is the proficiency of the advertising sales team led by the President of Media Sales at BET Networks, Louis Carr, a 36-year veteran, who cracked the code of selling segmented audiences for media.
“He has transformed how the advertising marketplace values and approaches Black media. For the BET Awards, we are now at the point where a number of our biggest advertisers created dedicated spots the same way for the Super Bowl, it’s culture’s biggest night,” he endorses. “Our sales team has helped advertisers understand when you engage our audience at that time, on a platform around an event that they value, you’re showing up there for them, is received in a way that is completely different than if you are reaching them at some other time on another platform.”
The question is how to expand the sales team’s capabilities and strengthen their relationships. Mills recalls a time when he attended a dinner to honor Carr and another honoree, the Chief Brand Officer from Procter & Gamble, Marc Pritchard, publicly acknowledged that Carr taught him the value of the Black consumer and media.
“It was such a testament to how our team, the biggest marketer in the world, we helped them evolve their perspective of the value of the Black marketplace, of the value of using appropriate media to reach that marketplace. So that’s a capability we’re going to continue leveraging,” Mills says. The BET brand operates as a well-organized entity by recognizing and capitalizing on opportunities, recruiting talented executives who strategize to increase its market share, and acquiring recognizable properties such as VH1.
“That outcome was a function of the unbelievable work and success that the leadership team has been generating over the last several years. The company was able to look at the ad sales performance, the marketing, branding, and the positioning performance, and given all of those things; we believe the team can do outsize things with this asset,” Mills says of the company’s recent acquisition. VH1 will be a complementary brand to the BET network but occupy a separate space within the media landscape. According to third-party data sources, Mills says,
“Vh1 audiences are 75% people of color, 64% Black, 11% Hispanic, and 25% non-people of color; BET is about 85% people of color.” “BET is the number one cable network with Black viewers VH1 is the number two cable network with Black viewers. We can now create content that will span across the networks that will speak to those audiences,” Mills says of his plans for the cable television network. “Another fun thing is BET owns the Soul Train IP, and we’re working on developing the Soul Train documentary with Questlove. But the very first Soul Train documentary was done by VH1, which speaks to where these intersection points are and advancing them today.”
For the next five years, Mills’ aspiration for the company is to continue to grow in its relevance and service to the Black community and consumers. While the world introduces advanced technological amenities such as Web 3.0 and the Metaverse, Mills believes BET must remain anchored in its ability to service its community with businesses to attract more viewers.
“Today, we’re in linear, streaming, digital, studios, and live events. We’re the number one Black targeted streaming service and the number one digital platform; it’s this unique ability because of the strength of the brands, marketing assets, relationships with talent, and community. Five years from now, the world will evolve, and all those businesses will exist, but they’ll likely be other businesses. So my aspiration is as the world evolves, that we evolve with the world, and that we’re always establishing leadership positions on platforms that are important to our community,” he knowingly concludes.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.