How BET's Successful Virtual Pivot Made History and Changed the Future of Awards Shows
Photo Credit: BET Awards 2020/Getty Images via Getty Images

How BET's Successful Virtual Pivot Made History and Changed the Future of Awards Shows

Last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person events were upended in the entertainment industry, leaving many to wonder how things would carry on while people quarantined at home.

With the introduction of remote events such as VERZUZ and other digitized programming, many industry-style happenings began to pivot to virtual formats to continue creating quality immersive experiences.

A key player in making this happen was none other than BET and its 2020 awards shows. With a virtuous spirit and forward-thinking mentality, the network single-handedly made history and created the new gold standard for awards shows.

It all started with the network’s broadcast special, “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort,” a program designed to help support communities of color hit hardest by COVID-19’s harmful impact.

According to Rawle Sterling — a production manager at BET — this TV program was BET’s first foray into producing a show under pandemic-driven conditions, and laid the foundation for what they were able to pull off immediately after.

“The success of that show I think really led to the blueprint and grounding for what BET Awards could be,” he said in terms of its virtual format.

Despite much uncertainty surrounding how the BET Awards would move forward during the pandemic, BET maintained a “the show must go on” attitude.

“At that point, even though we didn’t really think that we’d be extended through now, we started thinking about the ‘what if,’” said Connie Orlando — BET’s EVP of specials, music programming & music strategy — to Billboard last year.

She then posed the all-important question: “What would an award show look like if we had to produce it during the pandemic?”

From there, the network decided “our culture is too big to be canceled” and proceeded with the seminal event via a mind-blowing virtual celebration.

The COVID-19 delays shortened the network’s timeline for putting the event together, and after cancelling its in-person BET experience, they made their biggest bet on the only hope for pulling off this virtual show.

“From there, we had a month to really pivot and figure out what that looked like across the board,” said Tori Carter — Senior Social Media Producer at BET.

On the social media side of things, BET’s team worked overtime to ensure all content typically filmed on-site would still suffice for the show’s new layout.

“From the perspective of the lead, there’s just so much that we have to incorporate,” Carter — who’s led social for the awards the last two years — said to us. “As a social and digital department we have our own goals and objectives, so we still have to come up with a slew of content to promote this show. As well as, on the night of the show, own the conversation on [social media], flood feeds, and trend across all our platforms.”

Between the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests in early June, BET was forced to hold off on announcing last year’s nominees until June 15, leaving them only two weeks to shoot all content and promote.

To make it happen, BET heavily relied on the help of tech-based platforms like Social Live, Greenfly, and Zoom as well as home-styled recording kits for show talent to capture all content and footage needed.

“No one was really in an office, and no one was really together at all. These were all virtual calls,” Carter shared. “It was literally [us] using all the tech we could get to record in our homes.”

While many fans shared their apprehensive sentiments about a virtual show last year, they were pleasantly surprised to see how well it turned out in BET’s favor.

Not only was the BET Awards trending on social media the night of for its show-stopping moments as it does every year, the network was also receiving major props for doing what most thought was impossible.

Through all the challenges that arose, BET still managed to set the tone for how others would model their virtual events in the future.

“A lot of people hold BET to a really high standard, so just being a part of something that ushered in a newfound trust in our brand as well as people believing in what we do, that was really rewarding. Seeing how the rest of the industry has scoped out with shows, people have really been giving us our props and proud that we were the first ones to do it correctly. You can’t take that away from us. We did it and we did it well.” – Tori Carter

Following the massive success of the 2020 BET Awards, the network preserved its esteemed reputation producing other major virtual shows like the 2020 Hip-Hop Awards and Soul Train Awards.

Not only did BET prove that it was possible to host a highly-curated virtual event and uniquely merge technology and entertainment together, it also positioned Black people at the forefront of the culture as tastemakers.

“We’ve had a year to perfect [virtual awards shows],” Rawle shared. “So, it means a little bit more to put out something that people truly love and resonates with them.”

The power of technology helped BET pull off one of the greatest feats in modern-day entertainment history. By pushing boundaries and defying the odds, the network will be forever helmed for being trendsetters.

When you highlight those that pioneered all things digital entertainment amid a global pandemic, make sure you remember it was Black folks that made it happen.

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