In the summer of 2010, the new EUE/Screen Gems Studios was ready to open at the old Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta but needed clients.
At the same time, the BET cable network — part of New York-based Viacom Inc. — had picked up “The Game,” a popular comedy targeting African Americans that the CW Network had dropped as it focused on a different audience. The show needed a place to shoot.
Georgia’s sweetened tax credits for film and TV production companies helped bring the two companies together just when each needed a partner. Without those tax credits, EUE would never have built operations here and BET would have gone elsewhere to produce its new scripted programming.
Beyond dollars and cents, BET, which stands for Black Entertainment Television, found plenty of other reasons to make Atlanta its second home.
Network executives are well aware that Atlanta is home to 1.7 million black people, the second largest black population in the country behind only New York City, according to the U.S. Census.
“Atlanta is very representative of our audience,” said Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET senior vice president of original programming.
BET already had positive experiences shooting in Atlanta in the past. Those programs included “Sunday Best,” gospel music’s answer to “American Idol” and a talk show starring Oscar-winning actress and comedienne Mo’Nique.
Brookins said she was also impressed by the quality of the Atlanta crew base and how easy it was to fill a room for a taping.
“In some cities, we’d sometimes have to ‘buy’ an audience to fill seats,” she said, which means paying people to watch a show. “We never have to do that here.” When Mo’Nique was shooting her talk show at Turner Studios, Brookins recalled regulars who would show up for every taping.
The result: BET became EUE’s first client in Atlanta. Kris Bagwell, executive vice president for EUE’s Atlanta studio, said the company rushed renovations to get a stage ready for “The Game.” A few months later in early 2011, the return of “The Game” drew a BET network record of 7.7 million viewers.
Since then, BET has produced more than a half dozen productions at EUE, including sitcoms “Reed Between the Lines” with former “Cosby Show” star Malcolm-Jamal Warner, “Let’s Stay Together” and “Second Generation Wayans.”
BET planted a production department at EUE, where 12 to 15 BET employees are frequently at the offices at any one time. Tony Strickland, BET’s director of production, is based here full time with two other employees.
“They’ve been a phenomenal client,” Bagwell said. “They’re good partners. They’re not one sided. Their people really embrace being here. It’s a whole new playground for them and it really put some energy into their whole programming department.”
Once an independent cable network, BET was purchased by Viacom in 2001. Over the past seven years, BET has expanded its original programming beyond music, delving into game shows, talk shows, reality shows and scripted comedies.
This expansion strategy, which is similar to that of sister Viacom stations MTV and VH1, is a necessity as other cable networks aggressively chase after BET’s core viewers.
VH1’s hottest shows include “Single Ladies” and “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” both shot locally. WE-TV has had success with “Braxton Family Values.” Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network has seen ratings skyrocket thanks to shows catering to black women such as “Iyanla: Fix My Life” and “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”
Blacks are heavy TV watchers. They spend 27 percent more hours viewing TV programs per week than the average viewer: 46.5 hours versus 34, according to Nielsen Media Research.
BET’s ability to draw eyeballs has been mixed lately, with viewership down slightly year over year. Its top show “The Game” has lost ground since its grand debut on the network. Only one other show — a reality spoof called “Real Husbands of Hollywood” shot in Los Angeles — has approached “The Game” in ratings.
“They’re kind of off the radar in the advertising community,” said Brad Adgate, head of research at New York-based Horizon Media, which identifies TV viewing trends for advertisers. “It’s a must buy for certain advertisers and fulfills an important niche. But they’re lacking a real breakthrough show that has cross-over appeal.”
BET just might have that show with “Being Mary Jane,” the network’s first original scripted drama starring Gabrielle Union as a successful 30-something Atlanta-based journalist with a messy personal and family life. The pilot, shot at EUE/Screen Gems, aired last month with a gusher of positive feedback from social media and strong ratings, especially among younger viewers.
This sets the stage for big numbers when “Being Mary Jane” the series debuts early next year.
Although BET keeps its offices at EUE/Screen Gems, the studio can’t accommodate BET all the time. It’s currently committing a bulk of space for the next round of huge film franchise “The Hunger Games,” forcing BET to shop for another site for “The Game.” And earlier this month, BET began shooting the revival of its stand-up comedy show “ComicView” at Turner Studios.
During a recent taping, Turner Studio 4 throbbed with nightclub energy, thanks to a live band, mood lighting and 100 audience members ready to laugh.
Jolisa Stallworth, a 23-year-old Kennesaw State University student who attended the free taping, said she was inspired to become a communications major after growing up watching BET’s daily music program “106 & Park.”
“I’ve always dreamt of being part of anything BET has going on,” said Stallworth. “And this is the mecca in the South for African Americans. It makes sense for BET to want to be here.”