Sep 25, 2019

By Tara Weiss
The head of BET+ talks about the opportunity to program to fans of black culture and stories.

Our In the Office With ... series, gives Viacom executives the opportunity to reveal a little bit about who they are, how they lead, and what drives them in the day-to-day.

 

Devin Griffin traces his obsession with television to his mid-20s, when a college friend introduced him to The Wire. Griffin, usually an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of guy, stayed up‘til the wee hours for weeks watching the Baltimore-based crime drama, returning to Blockbuster frequently to rent each season.

It was his first experience binge-watching and it was transformative. Griffin has spent much of his professional life working to replicate that programming magic, first building the digital arm of Lorne Michaels’ production house, Broadway Video, and then at Netflix with independent television, unscripted originals, and major studio television acquisitions. Now he’s doing it as general manager of BET+, a streaming service featuring black culture and storytelling that launches Thursday for $9.99 monthly.

It’s a risky prospect, given the so-called streaming wars. But Griffin and his team are confident that their offering will fill a programming hole for viewers who want to see content about black culture. Plus, African American audiences are avid content consumers. Horowitz Research’s annual media landscape survey found that 74 percent of black TV viewers stream at least some TV content compared to 68 percent of total market consumers. Viewers surveyed report watching an average of 6.9 hours of TV a day—higher than any other group.

 

Devin Griffin, general manager, BET+

Subscribers of BET+ will get BET library content, which is being pulled from other streamers and cable networks as deals expire, originals from Tyler Perry Studios and new series such as Tracy Oliver’s The First Wives Club and Will Packer’s Bigger. Original content will be added monthly.

Subscribers might be in for some unexpected hits, too. Griffin’s boss at Netflix referred to him as a truffle hunter for his ability to uncover unlikely content morsels and build a business around them. Yes, Griffin gives viewers what they crave but he also introduces them to content they didn’t know they wanted.

Griffin is based in L.A. and plans to work in New York monthly. We recently chatted during one of those trips east about how to deliver programming magic, discovering new talent on- and off-camera and his favorite TV shows.

 


Tara Weiss: Why does the world need another streaming service?

 Devin Griffin: We’re pro-consumer: more choice is always better for our fans. Based on the research we've done, African Americans consistently tell us they want and need this service.

TW: There are some out there, though, like the Urban Movie Channel.

DG: No one has a monopoly on content and stories that appeal to people who love black culture, black stories, and black storytelling. We’re fortunate in that we can offer exclusive BET+ original series and movies as well as exclusive library content that is only on our platform.

Black viewers have a voracious, almost unending appetite for content. The Urban Movie Channel is a competitor. But so is a great book, video games, and social media. Ultimately, we are competing for people's time.

TW: And their wallets.

DG: And their wallets.

TW: BET+ is $9.99, slightly more than the basic level of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, or the upcoming services from Disney and Apple. How do you convince people to pay for one more service, especially if they already have BET with their cable subscription?

 DG: Offering over 1,000 hours of premium content, adding new things almost every week and originals every month, not to mention the technology, product and marketing is no insignificant undertaking. Having a $9.99 subscription fee enables us to deliver a service that stands out from the pack.

TW: Let’s talk content. BET+ is launching with the originals First Wives Club and Bigger. Why launch with them?

Devin Griffin, general manager BET+

DG: They're both massively exciting shows because of the stature of the storytellers and the producers attached to them. The early results are very strong. Subscribers are really engaging heavily with both First Wives and Bigger – we couldn’t be happier with the receipt to date.

Will Packer is virtually unparalleled in the lane of releasing and producing evocative stories in theaters. His show, Bigger, is about a group of young friends in Atlanta trying to find their way as they're navigating the transition from being young, unencumbered adults to adults who have a few more responsibilities and things to figure out in life.

I wish I could take credit for bringing Tracy Oliver's project in. To have an opportunity to work with a fast-rising talent that's about ready to burst, in terms of the other projects and things that she has going on. There's no ceiling on what she can do. I think it makes all the sense in the world.

TW: Does BET+ compete with BET on linear cable?

DG: We look at BET+ as complementary to BET. BET linear is supported by advertising and an affiliate model, so there are stories they might not be able to tell because of the guardrails that come with being a cable network.  So BET+ allows us to tell more compelling stories fans want.

TW: What are some examples?

DG: It can be the nature of the content, whether it's edgier or more explicit. As an example, BET might not want to tell a methodical, slow-burn documentary, but if that’s something people have an appetite for, we can show it on BET+. Or, there could be some a stand-up comedian who might not fit squarely into what BET linear does that we can air.

The linear side is about getting get as many people as possible at one time. We can use the BET+ platform to reach niche audiences in ways that are much more difficult to do on the linear side.

TW: Can you talk about how non-African Americans fit into BET+’s potential audience?

DG: Our commitment as a brand is to tell stories that portray the black experience and that speak to lovers of black culture. Going back to the sixties, seventies and eighties, NBC had huge nights that were anchored by African American stories and experiences. Black and African American stories are both specific and broad. We have an opportunity to tell stories that resonate on a personal level for folks that come from the community but are also accessible and relevant to folks who connect on a human level.

"Our commitment as a brand is to tell stories that portray the black experience and that speak to lovers of black culture. "

Devin Griffin,

general manager, BET+

TW: You mentioned that The Wire was transformative for you—providing a magical feeling of discovering a show you can’t stop watching. How do you find those?

DG: It’s three things. One, knowing that you're a programmer, not a producer. That means having an idea of what people would love to watch, what people are watching, and what's missing. For example, you might not think we should use the scraps of the mushroom to make a chocolate bar, but actually, that really works. It's understanding those weird combinations that people might not think of.

Two, producers are putting their all on the line for a show and that takes courage and an appetite for risk. It’s important to respect that so there's a level of trust and producers come to you when they have an idea. I've been fortunate to develop a handful of relationships with producers who know that I'm just a TV nerd who wants to see really dope, exciting stuff.

The third thing is understanding and respecting what the data tells you.

TW: How intense is the competition for good content these days?

DG: It's a great time to be a writer or producer. There are lots of places to sell to. That means if we find a great project or a great project comes to us, it's going to be competitive. It behooves us to be more proactive in getting projects before other people even get to look at them.

TW: I read a quote from you saying that you want fresh voices in front of and behind the camera. So what are you looking for in your new hires, and who's on your team?

DG: We think about the business as having two big gears that turn the machine. Content and marketing. Those are the areas we're really focused on. Marketing is actually a revenue-generating center. Subscriber acquisition and customer retention involve a new set of skills, and to your point about competition, there's a lot of demand for those skills right now.

Small Talk

On the bicoastal transition: One of the big decisions I had to make in taking this job—which is a huge and exciting opportunity that resonates with things that I've been thinking about for many years—is that I'm based in L.A. and the beating heart of Viacom is in New York City. As part of the process of my coming here, Scott [Mills, BET President] definitely recruited and courted my wife. My wife and I are a team. She's the consigliere. I had to get the commitment and support from my wife and now increasingly from my seven-year-old and my five-year-old. I'm doing all of this because of my family.

Top five TV shows: The Wire. Breaking Bad. The Simpsons. Hip-Hop Evolution. ESPN 30 for 30.

The story behind his Gucci sneakers: My wife gave me permission to buy them.

On signing the deal to bring Eddie Murphy Delirious to Netflix: People were responding really well to Eddie Murphy Raw, and I said, ‘Well, what about Delirious? Is anybody doing it?’ No one had ever made the deal. So I saw it as an opportunity to bring something that's iconic. It's the kind of thing that you just do and you hope people watch it. And fortunately, a lot of people watched that.

Photo credit: David Williams