One of the best-known brands in Black entertainment is for sale. Two of the world’s most powerful African American media moguls — one with deep Atlanta ties — are are among the bidders to buy it.
Billionaire Tyler Perry and Byron Allen are competing to purchase a majority stake in BET Media Group from Paramount Global. BET Media includes not just the BET cable network but also sister station VH1, a production company and what some see as the future — the BET+ streaming service.
If Perry buys the BET assets, it could vault his Atlanta-based film and television production empire into a new world of content distribution, giving Perry a direct line into millions of U.S. households. A purchase by Allen, meanwhile, would further cement his hold in cable broadcasting and give his empire, which includes the Atlanta-based Weather Channel television network, new ways to reach viewers.
The negotiations also spotlight the evolving ways viewers consume entertainment, with thousands of jobs on the line in production hubs like Hollywood, Atlanta and New York. As more people stream vs. watch traditional broadcast and cable TV, media companies are scrambling to focus energies on building their streaming services and make them profitable.
Analysts say there’s also opportunity for a new ownership group to give the BET brand a boost in a crowded marketplace.
Black entrepreneur Robert Johnson started the BET cable network in 1980 and originally played music videos as a way to counter MTV, which was averse to playing Black artists in its early years.
Into the 1990s, the network made some efforts to include news and information with personalities like Tavis Smiley, but the primarily youth audience BET chased after preferred music shows like “106 & Park.” In the 2010s, BET invested in some scripted shows that drew big audiences like “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane,” both shot in Atlanta.
But Eric Deggans, TV critic for National Public Radio, said BET, owned by Paramount since 2001, has never fulfilled its promise to be a leading platform for Black-centered media.
“That’s always been that hope for BET. It’s very rarely reached that point,” he said. “It would be wonderful to see someone acquire it who can do that.”
New York-based Paramount instead has been heavily focused on building its primary streaming service Paramount+ and plans to merge Showtime with it.
This leaves Paramount in a bind about what to do with BET+, which launched as a niche service for Black audiences in 2019. It features a range of classic films, older TV series and original scripted shows.
BET+, which charges $9.99 a month, has yet to have a breakout hit.
But “they have some good content,” said Ronda Racha Penrice, an Atlanta-based Black historian and writer who has covered Black TV for 25 years. At the same time, it has competition, she noted, including Fox’s ad-supported streaming service Tubi, which has made an aggressive play to add Black-oriented content at no cost for viewers.
Paramount, which has not publicly released BET+ subscriber size or profitability, is entertaining the idea that someone like Perry or Allen would be able to leverage the BET brand with greater focus, energy and expertise than Paramount itself. It’s unclear if other would-be suitors are in the hunt as well.
Perry, 53, has built his Atlanta-based media empire with both creative and business smarts. His inspiring life story ― starting from nothing to billionaire status, according to Forbes magazine ― is well-documented and even the subject of a new museum exhibit at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon.
Using a unique blend of faith, humor and drama, Perry turned his stage plays into films and TV shows that resonate with a loyal fan base. He writes and directs almost all his own programs using an efficient process that enables him to pump out shows and films at a fraction of the time and cost of his rivals.
Perry has worked with multiple distributors the past two decades. Lionsgate placed his “Madea” comedy film franchise in movie theaters. TBS was home to his first hit TV shows “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns.” He then developed multiple shows for OWN in the 2010s including the soap “The Haves and the Have Nots.” In 2017, he signed a deal with Viacom, now Paramount, for content on BET, Nickelodeon and BET+, with shows like “The Oval,” “Sistas,” and “Assisted Living.”
He also has deals to release films for both Netflix and Amazon and is currently filming an historical drama “Six Triple Eight” starring Kerry Washington for Netflix. Over the past decade, he turned the closed Fort McPherson into a sprawling film campus known as Tyler Perry Studios.
While Perry has a minority stake in BET+, he has never had control of a distribution outlet like BET.
“Buying BET would be a natural progression for him,” Deggans said “He’s intimately familiar with the platform and how it operates. Plus, a lot of his content is already on BET and BET+.”
In contrast, Los Angeles-based Allen, a former TV host and stand-up comic, has owned cable networks for many years including the Weather Channel, Automotive.tv and Pets.TV.
Credit: Ryon Horne
Credit: Ryon Horne
In the mid-2010s, Allen sued Comcast, AT&T and Charter to gain wider distribution. He ultimately settled and was able to get many of his channels on those cable systems.
Last year, Allen also sued McDonald’s for racial discrimination, alleging the fast-food giant was not giving Black-owned media outlets a fair piece of its advertising budget.
Penrice said a deal would be contingent, of course, on financing. Both Perry and Allen might need partners, she said.
“I don’t think either of them have the capital to buy a majority stake in BET on their own,” she said.
Paramount has not said how much BET Media Group is worth. CNBC, citing unnamed sources, said BET Media group generated $1.5 billion in revenue last year.
“BET is going to be a fixer upper,” Deggans said. “Whoever acquires it is going to have to invest more and turn it into something else. If Tyler Perry buys it, he’ll likely invest more in scripted original programming. If Byron gets it, you’ll probably see more news and information and non-fiction programming. That’s what each of them is known for. But both also have the capacity to surprise you.”
Hometown: New Orleans
Current residence: Atlanta
Owns: Tyler Perry Studios, minority stake in BET+, property in the Bahamas, Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Beverly Hills, Calif.; 1,200 acres in Douglasville, Georgia
Content portfolio: Films like “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” ”I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” “A Madea Family Funeral” and “A Jazzman’s Blues” and TV shows such as “Meet the Browns,” “House of Payne,” “The Haves and the Have Nots,” “The Oval,” “Sistas”
Content deals: He has deals to distribute his films and TV shows with Paramount, Netflix and Amazon
Also: an actor in movies like “Alex Cross,” “Gone Girl” and “Don’t Look Up”
Current residence: Los Angeles
Owner: Allen Media Group, which owns TV stations, cable networks like Atlanta-based The Weather Channel, Automotive.tv and Pets.TV and TV shows like “America’s Court With Judge Ross” and “Funny You Should Ask”
Previously was: a stand-up comic, a host on NBC’s “Real People,” host of late-night talk show “The Byron Allen Show”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution