One on One with BET President of Music Programming Stephen Hill

Stephen+G+Hill+Celebs+BET+Awards+Press+Conference+RIeF-G5z3ifxWith a theme that says, “Anything Can Happen,” Black Entertainment Television’s President of Music Programming, Stephen Hill, wouldn’t want things to get too unpredictable.

After all, the 13th Annual BET Awards is live television, and airs from the Nokia Theater located in the heart of L.A. Live on Sunday, June 30. As of press time, Chris Brown, Kendrick Lamar, R. Kelly, Snoop Lion, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Miguel, India.Arie, and Ciara are scheduled to perform. Veteran R&B artist Charlie Wilson will receive the Cadillac sponsored Lifetime Achievement Award, and actor-comedian Chris Tucker is the evening’s host. BET held a rooftop press brunch across from Staples Center in mid-May, moderated by Mr. Hill. It was an opportunity to run-down the show’s nominees, and highlight three days of festivities, titled the BET Experience, in conjunction with event juggernaut AEG Live, consisting of concerts headlined by Beyoncé, R. Kelly,  Snoop Dogg, Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, Kirk Franklin, and more.

The new BET Experience is drawing comparisons to the Essence Festival now that the Awards have become a three-day event. What differentiates?

Stephen hill: People were coming to Los Angeles for the entire weekend whether or not they attended the show. So, we decided to find a way to formalize that energy. The BET Experience is the way to do that. It made sense to partner with AEG Live. It’s created a hot bed of entertainment possibilities. There is the Nokia Theater where the Awards show is going to be; there’s also Club Nokia, Staples Center and even the Grammy Awards Museum that we will use for entertainment purposes. L.A. Live is the perfect place.

What goes into picking a host?

I look back at some of the hosts we’ve had over the 13 years: Steve Harvey & Cedric the Entertainer did the first two years; Monique, the third and fourth years. We had Will Smith in 2005; Damon Wayans in 2006; Monique again in 2007; DL Hughley in ‘08; 2009 was Jamie Foxx; Queen Latifah in 2010; Kevin Hart, 2011; and Samuel Jackson in 2012. They all represent Black excellence. Sometimes we go with the comedic route, or you have a situation like Sam Jackson’s, who was filming Django, and was looking for something fun and light-hearted to do.

Last year’s show featured many tributes due to the passings of so many entertainers like Whitney Houston. How does that affect the energy of the show?

Last year unlike any previous year saw a lot of passings that resonated with our audience, from Vesta to Donna Summer, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Etta James to Whitney Houston. We  had to find numerous and special ways to celebrate their music and their lives. That was a big part of last year’s show. It probably won’t be the same this year. Obviously, Whitney Houston’s passing was a big blow last year as was Michael Jackson’s in 2009.

What prompted the expansion of categories this year? For the first time, BET is honoring International music from Africa and the UK. You’ve also renamed your vocal categories to Best R&B/Pop Artist.

We had a lot of conversation about that; it’s about recognizing artists who are making music that isn’t necessarily classic R&B. In old radio terms, you used to have to break something in R&B or Urban before you crossed over to Pop. Well now, there are artists going straight to Pop formats. An artist like Emeli Sandi is a perfect example of an artist who has gone straight to Pop. Then you have Rihanna who was a Pop princess before she became big at R&B formats. It’s just about acknowledging the changes in music.

The show is full of major stars, surprise guests, star collaborations and tributes. Do you feel the actual presentation of Awards ever gets lost in the process?

I’ll be honest with you. I love the fact that who wins the Awards gets lost. I hope what people remember about BET Award shows are the great collaborations, the tributes, and the performances. When you look at the audience, all you see are people up on their feet with so much energy.

What does honoring Charlie Wilson this year mean to you?

Charlie is someone we knew we wanted to honor. We had gone through a lot of names—people who are so deserving, and Charlie is so deserving as well. Luckily, Charlie’s schedule worked out, because he is constantly on the road, like 200 nights a year. He has really embraced these accolades, and he has been a long time friend of BET and Centric. We are going to make sure he’s honored properly at this year’s show.

The Amalgamation question: What’s the best thing about being Stephen Hill?

That at the end of the day, I’m still the guy who will spend money to get nose-bleed seats to see the Gap Band like I did back in September 1980 at the Providence Civic Center. I still get a kick out of live music. I still get a kick out of great television. I am so privileged to work with great teams of people to bring great entertainment to the masses. At the end of the day, I want performers and artists to be able express themselves and their art in a way that will enrich the lives of people.

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Interview Conducted By David A. Mitchell