An exec from the world of finance — who went on to work throughout BET — now leads the network devoted to the African-American experience.
Most children look to actors, singers or athletes for role models.
They dream that some day they, too, will command that screen, grab that mic or score that winning touchdown.
Scott Mills was not like most children.
"When I was a kid, my hero was John Johnson," Mills says, smiling. The founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Johnson was the first African-American to crack the Forbes 400. To Mills, the son of a Long Island physician and a businesswoman, that made him someone to emulate.
"I thought creating businesses and leading businesses were critically important to our country," Mills says. "I was 10."
Now 50, and the president of Black Entertainment Television, Mills reveals this insight from his corner office on the 27th floor of a sleek Times Square skyscraper. People don't rise to this level accidentally, yet Mills had no designs on making his mark in media.
Early in his career, as an investment banker, he was frequently in touch with Robert Johnson, America's first black billionaire and a co-founder of BET. They worked together so often that Johnson eventually asked him to "come on over and join the team," Mills recounts.
In 1997, Mills accepted the offer, figuring he would learn another facet of business. He had already earned a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and worked as the deputy treasurer for Philadelphia.
"I knew finance like the back of my hand," Mills says. "Finance is so specific. Everything is so calculable. Entrepreneurship was like a giant green space."
He leans back into the couch and smiles. "I thought, 'Perfect. I will go to the Bob Johnson School of Entrepreneurship.'"
Two months after Mills arrived at BET, Johnson sold the company to Viacom. Mills's office is just across Broadway from Viacom's headquarters. A recent shakeup at Viacom's Paramount sent some shows into limbo, and one of them, the comedy First Wives Club, landed at BET.
Tracy Oliver, who wrote the hit film Girls Trip, was working on First Wives Club last fall. She recalls a Paramount executive telling her, "'Do whatever you want to make it fresh. It needs to be connected to the movie. Make it your own.' I took it home with me, and I couldn't let it go. I came up with characters really quickly."
The show meets Mills's expectations for the network's programming. "Our audience loves character-driven dramas anchored in African-American experiences and aspirations," he says.
While that sounds like a simple goal, anyone who's worked in this business knows how complicated it is to find and develop the right material, attract the best talent, ensure that everyone works together to deliver it, then see that the resulting program meshes with the rest of the lineup.
Mills developed these abilities by working in many positions at the network; he's overseen business development, research, planning, digital media and interactive, including BET.com. Now he's in charge of it all, including programming, ad sales and digital teams.
Still, he's adamant about not thrusting himself into any of the shows — or making any grandiose claims. Cautious and self-contained, he greets predictions of a show's success with only a knowing smile. He prefers to stay low-key and offstage.
An easy entrée into the glittery world he manages would be a walk-on role on American Soul, BET's new series about the TV classic Soul Train. Pretty much anyone who watched that music show danced along; in the new series, Mills could easily have been an extra.
"That is so not me," he says. "I've always gone a little crazy when I see executives put themselves on shows. I'm far more interested in our shows really investing with our audiences."
Judging by the buzz on another new series, Mills believes audiences will invest in Boomerang, which premiered February 12. Decidedly not a reboot of the 1992 Eddie Murphy rom-com, this 10-episode, half-hour series is a continuation of the original story.
"When we announced we were doing this, all of these African-American creatives were asking to be part of it," Mills says. "I didn't recognize the currency of Boomerang. When we took the meeting with Lena [Waithe], her energy — plus the energy for people's affinity for that original project — was amazing."
The series picks up with the next generation, following the son of Jacqueline Boyer (Robin Givens in the original film), and the daughter of Marcus and Angela Graham (Murphy and Halle Berry). Waithe (The Chi) wrote the pilot with showrunner Ben Cory Jones, while Tequan Richmond (Everybody Hates Chris) and Tetona Jackson (All Night) star.
Waithe, Berry and Jones are all executive producers, as is Rishi Rajani.
Another drama with a built-in fan base is Games Divas Play, based on Angela Burt-Murray's popular book. The hour-long series, due in April, stars Lauren London (The Game) as a basketball wife, Parker McKenna Posey (My Wife and Kids) as a groupie determined to become a star and Karen Obilom (Insecure) as a blogger.
The show addresses the endless striving the women and their men deal with in Los Angeles.
Peachtree Place, a comedy expected this summer, follows five 30-somethings pursuing careers in Atlanta. Will Packer, who's had a string of hits as a producer (Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton), is the showrunner.
BET programs need to reflect a genuine African-American experience, whether they're dramas, comedies or unscripted.
"An ideal show for me is very dramatic, character-driven and rooted authentically in the black experience," says Connie Orlando, BET's executive vice-president of programming. "It is something with great stories and can last for seasons and seasons. That is our filter for all scripted programming."
She also notes how BET's audience embraced recent biopics on Bobby Brown and New Edition: "It was just as much fun watching Twitter as the biopics." The Bobby Brown Story generated some 889,000 social-media interactions and was the top-rated cable program among African-Americans during the 2017–18 season.
"The BET Awards always has a social following," Orlando observes. So does the network's music awards show Black Girls Rock! "They trend [online] from a little bit before they start [airing]. We have a very social audience."
BET also had three of the top five cable awards shows last season, with BET Awards, Hip Hop Awards and Soul Train Awards, all tentpole events that are reliable draws.
But in "this new world of clutter and competition," as Orlando terms the TV landscape, is BET meeting what she calls "the biggest challenge — coming up with properties that resonate with an audience, that get them to tune in"?
Recent stats indicate that it is. The network closed the year on another upswing, with five consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth. It remains the number-one destination among African-Americans across all key demographics, and it maintains the number-one spot among cable networks for African-Americans between 18 and 49.
And while it's clear that scripted shows are the network's lifeblood, Mills is careful not to write off unscripted. Finding Justice, a six-episode docuseries from Dwayne Johnson, will debut March 10.
"We feel it is a part of our responsibility to champion and come to the aid of our audience," Mills says. "This series came to us as Lost Justice, [which was going to be] a show about the terrible things happening to African-Americans around the country. We don't want to do that show. Do the show about people coming to their defense, and that's an uplifting, positive show."
Debuting April 28 is Ladies Night, a docuseries following Salt, Pepa and Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa as they embark on a national tour with SWV (Sisters With Voices).
And coming in the fall: Dream Team, which will focus on the USA Olympics Basketball team of 1992, with its 11 future Hall of Famers. Emmett and Brandon Malloy are directing and producing the series, which is supported by USA Basketball and the NBA.
At one point, BET might have been the only destination for these programs, whether dramas, comedies or unscripted. That's no longer the case. BET's slate now faces fierce competition from other networks' shows, including ABC's black-ish, FX's Atlanta, Showtime's The Chi and HBO's Insecure.
But while broadcast network, basic and premium cable and streaming services are suddenly scrambling for content created by and featuring African-Americans, BET's mission has remained singularly constant and committed: to entertain, engage and empower.
"If I just said 'empower,' it all falls apart," Mills explains. "Then we don't have license to do the other two things. In the African-American community, entertaining is a noble calling."
Mills knows how important television is to his audience. And as far as entertainment value goes, he notes what a deal it is. He recently went to an IMAX theater with his family; four tickets cost him $100. "African-Americans consume television more than anyone else," he says. "It is the most cost-effective form of entertainment available."
Sometimes BET's entertainment reaches beyond the screen. Of course, social media drives viewers to the shows and provides a forum to discuss them. But in the analog world, the BET Experience has been drawing fans to multi-day festivals of top talent since 2013.
Last year, 160,000 attended a four-day event in downtown Los Angeles that featured Nas, LL Cool J, Ludacris, Ne-Yo and others performing live. All this multi-platform success begins with the right shows. And much of that begins with the relationships Mills cultivates with showrunners. (Along those lines, he was slightly late to this interview because Waithe had called.)
Mills mentions an unnamed but "super-talented African-American showrunner" who recently saw his show canceled on a streaming service. Mills had just the right project for him, and they made plans to meet in L.A.
"He was the perfect person" for the project, Mills says. A couple of calls later, Mills discovered other executives were circling the same talent. A bidding war had erupted. Within hours, the showrunner had signed with someone else.
"That's the state of the business," he says.
When Mills took that leap from banking to media, he signed up for a front-row seat at the "Bob Johnson School of Entrepreneurship." Back then, no one could have predicted how media would evolve and how this industry would become even more complex, cutting-edge and competitive.
But that's just the way Mills likes it.
"Business is a sport, and I am not a spectator," he says, making good on that hero worship from 40 years ago. "Why be a spectator? You compete every day."
Viewers can catch up on BET series at BET.com or via the network app.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019