BET and TV One, the television networks aimed primarily at a black audience, haven’t paid much attention to presidential inaugurations before. This time will be different.
Both are planning extensive coverage for Jan. 20, when Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation’s 44th president. While it will be followed as a news event, network executives said the installation of the first black president will be as much a celebration as a story.
“This is an opportunity to be the best we can be,” said Stephen Hill, BET’s programming chief. “We see this as an opportunity to inform and inspire our audience, which is what we always try to do.”
BET marked President George W. Bush’s last inauguration with a news brief, to say “Oh, it happened. What a shame,” he said.
This time, BET will cover the swearing-in and parade from four locations, including ground and rooftop sites on Pennsylvania Avenue. Anchoring the coverage will be Hill Harper of CBS’ “CSI: NY,” former CBS “The Early Show” host Rene Syler and Jeff Johnson, who hosts a weekly BET news program.
The networks will take a particular interest in speaking to people who have traveled to Washington to witness the event. On election night, their ratings peaked shortly after the general news networks declared Obama the winner — when black viewers turned to the stations to soak it in with the people on the air.
“They talked about the emotion of it,” said Johnathan Rodgers, TV One’s president. “Everyone talked about their own relatives and how they grew up. Almost everyone could not believe that it happened in our lifetime.”
TV One plans to follow the inauguration for 21 straight hours, from 6 a.m. EST on Jan. 20 to 3 a.m. EST the next day. Radio talk-show host Joe Madison and Art Fennell of CN8, the Comcast Network, will be the hosts. It’s already a big week for TV One: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday the weekend before marks the fifth anniversary of the network’s launch.
With all that time on the air, TV One will do its best to give its audience a real flavor of being there, Rodgers said.
“We will show the parade,” he said. “We will not overwhelm the parade with a lot of pundits and other stuff.”
The connection between King’s work and Obama’s election will be a major theme for the networks; BET will speak to King’s children for their thoughts on Obama and is making a special, “King to Obama: Repurposing the Dream.”
BET is preparing several reports to air during the coverage, including a look at Michelle Obama; on the people who helped elect the new president; on his international appeal; and on his security, asking, “Who is willing to take a bullet for a black man?” BET, as the older of the two networks and the one with the wider reach, believes it has an advantage over TV One because BET is the only one with a news division.
BET will include simple historical explainers about presidential inaugurations throughout the day; the network reasons that many who will be watching have never seen one before.
“This is the first time in a long time a lot of people in our audience feel they are really part of the process of selecting a leader for the United States of America,” Hill said.
BET is planning a prime-time entertainment special taped earlier, “Yes We Will: The BET Inaugural Celebration,” and will also sponsor its own inaugural ball, which will be featured in live cut-ins. TV One is reporting from the scenes of Obama’s inaugural balls from 10 p.m. EST to midnight.
General news networks are still formulating their coverage plans. It’s unclear whether reporters will be assigned specifically to cover the black perspective on that day, but it obviously will be a big part of the story, said Paul Friedman, CBS News senior vice president.
“I don’t know how you don’t cover that story virtually all the way through,” he said.