BET Networks is the latest TV brand trying to take its programming directly to audiences online.
On Thursday, the Viacom-owned network launched a standalone streaming-video subscription, BET Plus, with 1,000 hours of programming for $10 per month.
The platform — focused on TV shows, movies, and specials by African-American creators — rolled out ahead of forthcoming services from media and tech behemoths like Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal in the next year.
Devin Griffin, a former content development exec at Netflix who is the EVP leading BET Plus at Viacom, talked to Business Insider about the strategy, and challenges, of launching a subscription service in the already crowded streaming landscape.
Griffin said he expects to be listening and tinkering a lot with the platform in its first year — something he learned from his Netflix days — to make it stand out as new and bigger players enter the space.
"We're going out into the market with eyes wide open about the fact that it's dynamic, shifting, and changing," Griffin said. "When you're launching a service like this, every day is an opportunity to improve — adding new content, getting smarter about what works, and trying to understand what our subscribers want to see. Then also leading them to new things that maybe they aren't telling us explicitly, but we can use data to intuit."
Griffin will be focusing on a few key areas post-launch:
- How people respond to the content through engagement on the platform, social media, and consumer research.
- The cadence of original releases, which will debut once per month.
- The release model, which will include a mix of seasons that are dropped all at once, and others that will premiere with three episodes and then move to a weekly schedule.
- How the platform is performing through partners like Amazon, Apple, and Google's Android devices.
- The overall user experience, included how titles are discovered and recommended on the platform.
BET will be moving from a basic-cable model to a premium offering on streaming.
By charging $10 per month for BET Plus, the BET brand will be moving from a basic cable network on TV to a premium streaming offering, on par with Starz ($9 per month), Showtime ($11), or HBO Now ($15).
Netflix is in a similar price range; it starts at $9 per month in the US, but its $13 plan is the most popular. Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus are trying to undercut the market by charging $5 and $6, respectively.
Griffin said consumer research led the company to that price point. There were conversations about an ad-supported model, but the company is positioning BET Plus as a more premium offering.
"We're really focused on providing an ad-free experience and really trying to nail that down," Griffin said. "It's a part of a broader portfolio strategy that we're taking at the Viacom corporate level."
Viacom has a mix of streaming platforms, including the free, ad-supported service Pluto TV, and subscription services Noggin, NickHits, MTVHits, Comedy Central Now.
The platform is trying to grow BET beyond its core TV audience, which is waning alongside the rise of cord-cutting.
Even with new services on the way, like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, there's a vacuum of platforms that speak directly to black audiences and offer premium African-American stories, Griffin said.
He expects BET Plus subscribers to use the service as a complement to other streaming services.
"African-Americans just watch a lot of content; a lot more than the general audience," Griffin said. "That's given us a lot of confidence that there's still plenty of room for us to play and try to be a meaningful addition to the offerings that are out there."
The linear BET channel, like other networks, has been losing TV subscribers as audiences abandon conventional pay-TV packages. BET's lost 2% of its subscribers in 2018, closing the fiscal year with 220 million globally, according to Viacom's annual report. The network's live-and-same-day viewership was also down 11% in the US, and 15% among 18-49-year-olds, Nielsen data reported by IndieWire showed.
Griffin is hoping to find some of those audiences, who have ties to the BET brand, online.
The core BET viewer today skews African-American, female, and 35-years-of age and up, Griffin said. BET Plus is targeting those viewers with shows like its new original sitcom, "First Wives Club," a reboot of a 1996 comedy about divorcees' whose husbands left them for younger women.
"BET Plus is place where viewers and creators alike can sort of find themselves, express themselves in ways that we don't think other platforms out there are facilitating," Griffin said.
It's also trying to evolve the content strategy to attract younger audiences and men, as well as people who aren't familiar with BET because they may not have had cable.
The platform is a joint venture with production company Tyler Perry Studios. Tyler Perry will be bringing some of his movies and stage plays to BET Plus, as well as creating original content, bringing talent, and helping promote the service.
BET Plus has also been targeting ads on social media to people who have shown an interest in Perry's movies and TV shows, as well as BET programming.
"BET Plus is really about expanding the tent for us," Griffin said. "It means serving your base, but then also opening up all the panels, all the side doors, so that folks from different walks that represent the diversity of our audience and their interests can all be well served."