Scott Mills had a plan for BET. Four years after he took over as president of the network, the proof is in the output: Under Mills’ watch, BET persuaded superstar producer Tyler Perry to an overall deal at BET, launched the growing streamer BET Plus, and recently created a new production template for BET Studios, luring in more high-profile producers including Kenya Barris.
Now, Variety can exclusively report that Mills has been promoted to serve as CEO of BET. “He’s an executive that went out to deliver and did, and arguably overdelivered in terms of the combination of things he’s done,” said ViacomCBS president/CEO Bob Bakish. “I mean, these jobs are hard. There’s a lot going on. You need a senior leadership team that can deliver and he’s certainly part of that. So I look forward to the next five years and seeing where he goes with BET, and beyond that. I think he’s got the right stuff.”
Bakish and Showtime Networks chairman/CEO David Nevins announced Mills’ elevation to CEO Monday morning.
Mills was named president of BET in December 2017. But prior to that, he had served in a variety of roles since joining BET in 1997, beginning in business development and later in roles including as head of BET Interactive (where he launched BET.com); CFO and president of digital media; and then as chief operating officer. In the mid-2010s, Mills had moved over to Viacom as exec VP and chief administrative officer, responsible for human resources, real estate, facilities and security.
It was there that he caught Bakish’s eye with an audacious idea: Why not make a play for Perry, a prolific talent known not just for delivering box-office hits, but for producing an unprecedented volume of hit shows for both Turner and OWN. Mills had been pitching Perry for years on the idea: “He had been trying to get me and BET together ever since he was in another capacity in 2007,” Perry recalled. “He was that determined for us to work together.”
By that time, the BET brand had long secured its legacy as a preeminent cable destination for Black audiences, yet it had often been criticized for falling short in its potential to be the home for high quality programming from A-list creators.
“It wasn’t doing all that great,” Bakish said. “At the time Scott was the head of HR. And we worked on a lot of things together. One of the things that we talked about was fact that BET should be stronger than it was. And it was where it was for a variety of reasons. But really, the beginning of the arc of Scott’s success with BET started with him coming to me saying, ‘Hey, I think there’s an opportunity to align Tyler Perry with BET.’”
Mills’ tenacity paid off when Perry sealed a rich and wide-ranging production pact with BET and Viacom in July 2017.
“Tyler Perry was in another partnership [with OWN], but we really had this vision that Tyler could be such an important partner to BET,” Mills said. “And to Bob’s credit, he’s like, ‘I get it.’ And he really stepped up to a big commitment. Early, that was key.”
Once Perry ended his previous deal at OWN, he stepped right in at BET and immediately got going on new series such as “Sisters” and “The Oval.”
“His pitch was, ‘I’m coming in, I’m sitting in this seat and I can assure you that I can make sure you have every tool you need to be successful here,’” Perry said. “He knew what my concerns were coming in. He was very aware of what he had inherited at BET and where the problems were, what was out in the world about the network itself. I just needed to make sure that the support is there. And he’s been absolutely 100% in delivering that support.
“Scott is an analytical guy and all about numbers, and he was able to go to the board, to the powers that be and show them that if we invest this, here’s what our returns would be,” Perry added. “And I think that that is how he was instrumental in getting it to turn around.”
The success of that deal put Mills in line to replace Debra Lee, who stepped down as president in 2017.
“Debra Lee wanted to retire and I thought Scott would be right to lead the brand going forward,” Bakish said. “So he took over leadership of BET. Not only was he able to convert what we thought was a good idea in terms of aligning Tyler to be a really good idea and really perform — but then he used that as a basis to broaden the programming mix on BET, which obviously involved additional investment. But I believe in the ROI.”
As they waited for the Perry deal and his programming to kick in, Mills and his team had also already started broadening the network’s programming scope, launching series like Lena Waithe’s “Twenties.”
“Once we had that foundation, we were then able to go out and say, who the other people whom we want to work with?” Mills said. “So you go to a Lena Waithe, who is so important and speaks and lives in a completely different lane, makes content for a completely different filter. The thing we always focus on at BET is the extraordinary diversity of the Black community. It is not a monolith. It’s so diverse. And we try to super serve all of those diverse constituencies.”
In 2019, Mills enlisted Perry to help launch BET Plus, a subscription VOD service featuring new shows from Perry as well as Will Packer, Lee Daniels and others. Mills said his team was able to pitch Viacom on supporting the service by pointing out that although Black consumers subscribe to streaming services in high numbers, his research found that there was a low satisfaction level for content targeting Black audiences on the major streamers.
“We’re seeing such resonance for BET Plus, the first year it was 50% ahead of plan,” Mills said. “And the second year it was double digits ahead of plan. We think it’s positioning as a supplement to general entertainment services. We were able to prove through all of our research and all of our analysis that actually there’s a very specific opportunity that exists for BET in that space.”
Upcoming programming on BET Plus includes a revival of Kevin Hart’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” a parody series that originally ran on BET from 2013 to 2016. “I can tell you how it has evolved,” Hart said of Mills’ impact on the stature of BET. “I mean, look at the conversation we’re having now. You’re talking to Kevin Hart, and you’re talking to Kevin Hart about his partnership with the [BET Plus] platform. And the reason why is because Scott made it a priority to go out and find ways to work with A-list talent, find ways to be creative, and deliver in a way where people can identify premium with that platform. I think they’re doing a good job to step in that direction.”
Mills’ most recent launch centered on BET Studios, a studio venture offering equity ownership for Black content creators including Barris and Rashida Jones.
“The nice thing about this enterprise strategy that we’ve created, where we’re creating content for BET linear, we’re creating content for BET Plus, we’re now creating content for BET Studios, is it’s allowing us, we now have more programming resources and programming assets at BET than we’ve ever had in the history of the business,” Mills said.
Added Bakish: “This BET Studios extension is really an innovative model, I believe, to attract more talent to the brand, and get a range of benefits from it.”
Meanwhile, also under Mills, BET’s social impact initiatives have included Content for Change, which has been adopted across ViacomCBS. BET’s response last year to issues and events that impacted the Black community included the 2020 BET Awards, which aired not long after the murder of George Floyd and served as a way for Black artists and the show’s viewers to come together and respond to what was happening. And also last year, BET raised nearly $20 million in COVID-19 relief to help Black communities that had been hardest hit by the pandemic.
“There’s always going to be these moments where you need BET to play these critical roles,” said Mills, who touts “content, community and culture” as the brand’s three pillars. “It was so critically important to ensure that we’re making the decisions today to ensure that BET is healthy and vibrant in the future.”
Said Perry: “What I found very early on, it’s very important to have the right people in the right seats in order to move a company forward. And also to draw talent that wants to work with you. So in this climate, where content is king and being someone who provides so much content, the options will be knocking down my door when the contract is up. But it’s all going to be about who I want to work with. And Scott is definitely somebody that I like to work with, because he clearly understands the culture, the space he’s representing, and he gets it on so many levels. So that for me is reason enough to stay, just having him in a seat that gives him even more power, even more strength to do the things to make the network even better and stronger.”