Can TJ Holmes beef up BET’s news coverage?

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With his chiseled jawline and infectious smile, T. J. Holmes is a popular choice for weekend news junkies. All that, though, is about to change as the telegenic journalist prepares to leave CNN to attempt to beef up BET’s news coverage.

Holmes joined CNN in October 2006 and anchors the weekend edition of CNN Newsroom. The multi-platform deal with BET will give him his own self-styled show.

No doubt this is a lucrative career move that will give the award-winning news anchor a platform to imprint his own perspective on stories that matter to him and the black community.

For some, however, this is a surprise move and analysts question whether the cable television network has the resources and viewers to make this a smart transition. “BET has a niche audience in a crowded and competitive market,” says media analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.

There is a lurking concern, nevertheless, among some people in the black community that the cable network’s content has not sufficiently evolved since its launch in 1980.

Critics say it does not adequately reflect serious issues and political coverage or the intellectual concerns of the well-heeled black middle class. In 2006, for example, BET was criticized for not televising the funeral of civil rights leader Coretta Scott King live.

Others complain that BET panders to advertisers with a too much focus on music videos that alienates older viewers. “BET’s target audience is young,” says Adgate.

“They fill their niche but don’t have anything that’s crossover. A news magazine show, anchored by someone like Holmes, has the potential to bring in an older audience and maybe even attract viewers who are not black,” he adds.

It is perhaps BET’s desire to expand its coverage and viewership as well as Holmes’s aspirations to move on, which has set the scene for this unlikely union.

“It’s now upon us to develop vehicles that capture his [T. J. Holmes] intelligence, curiosity about the world, warmth, humor and compassion,” says Stephen G. Hill, President of Music Programming and Specials at BET Networks.

Marcy Polanco, corporate communications director at BET, is keen to stress that they are still developing the show’s format. “TJ will be busy shooting the pilot in Los Angeles this weekend” and “we haven’t nailed down the exact format,” she says. She admits, nonetheless, that Holmes will be an important asset “especially in the run up to the presidential elections.”

“My role will be as a journalist,” said Holmes in an interview with The Root. “They [BET] brought me on because of my news background and for my news chops.”

The network has had limited success with regular news programs in the past. Shows such a BET News, BET Tonight and BET Nightly News have all ended prematurely. In 2002, as part of a reorganization focusing on entertainment productions, BET cut its news staff and canceled BET Tonight.

It remains to be seen whether Holmes can reverse this trend. He is a well-respected journalist and television personality within the African-American community and seems to believe there is a lot of scope. Speaking about the move to BET, the departing CNN anchor, says he has been given the opportunity to do something that means a lot to him and his community.

“BET needs to find a happy medium for its younger viewers as well as try to build its audience and improve ratings,” says Adgate. “It’s been around for long enough and has great brand recognition,” he says. “TJ’s show could be an ideal opportunity to produce a different type of format for the cable network.”

BET, now wholly owned by Viacom, is a relatively successful consumer brand with a significant African-American audience, including oversees viewers. “For the past five years we’ve been responsible for launching and developing BET’s brand in the UK and in parts Africa,” says Glen Yearwood, managing director of London based cross-cultural media consultancy, Soul Marketing.

BET seems to be coming of age and it may be that Holmes’s deal is part of this process. It comes as the network aired an exclusive interview with former Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, on Thursday.

In 2010, BET also announced that, Ed Gordon, would return to the network to host “a variety of news programs and specials.”

Indeed, Polanco argues that BET does not just produce programs for the under 25s. “The demographics are 18 to 49 years old,” she says.

“The audience varies from program to program, with a younger audience for music formats. BET has developed tremendously over the years, with an enormous amount of programming and original content such as The Game, Let’s Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines,” she says.