“Massive Ratings Don’t Always Translate into Big Profits.”

Programming a TV network is both art and science, and this CFO is happy to supply the science. An interview with Michael Pickrum, CFO of Black Entertainment Television LLC.

When it comes to financial executives getting involved in a company’s operations, Michael Pickrum has an enviable task: watching television. As CFO of Black Entertainment Television, a 30-year-old multimedia company owned by Viacom, Pickrum oversees the costs and revenue associated with programming two cable networks, BET and Centric, along with the company’s forays into online and mobile entertainment.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Pickrum headed up BET Interactive for several years before helping to fold it into the cable network operator and becoming CFO of that larger company in 2007. Since then, the network has become more “scientific” about how it creates and buys sitcoms, reality shows, and music programming, says the 40-year-old Pickrum. Part of many standard cable packages, BET has increased the number of homes it reaches by 8% since 2006; last year it boosted ratings by 17%. The network claims many popular African-American actors and musicians among its performers, including Mo’Nique, who recently won an Oscar for her role in the 2009 film Precious.

Your programming really covers the waterfront. How do you break it down?

We have three primary genres: original series, specials, and music programming. For original programs, one of the new ones, The Family Crews, starring Terry Crews, the dad from Everybody Hates Chris, is doing well. Then there are our specials, like the “BET Awards,” “Rip the Runway,” and “BET Honors.” I would argue that no one does awards shows better in the industry. Our “BET Awards” was the top-rated cable awards show for 2010. Then we have what we call the juggernaut, 106 & Park, the number-one daily music show in the cable business. And then there’s Mo’Nique, the talk show. We’ve done talk shows before, but we really got it right this time. The show was generating great ratings even before Mo’Nique’s recent ride through Hollywood.

Does “most popular” automatically translate into “most profitable”?

No, no, no! That’s the goal, but it doesn’t always happen that way. For example, there are some reality shows that are emotional and physical train wrecks, so you get massive ratings, but advertisers don’t want to be anywhere near them. To be fair, we’ve had our share, but now we’re really focusing on creating popular shows that are not necessarily salacious or over the top; [we want to] get great ratings and then monetize them.

Does Mo’Nique winning an Oscar have a big impact on your business?

Everything now gets more expensive for me. No, I’m just joking. Mo’Nique has a contract with us and she is honoring her contract. When her contract ends, of course, it will be a negotiation. And we will definitely try [to charge more for advertising during her show]. Whether that happens or not is another discussion.

What role does finance play in an entertainment medium that is largely built around ratings?

At the end of the day, programming a network, there’s some aspect of it being an art. But there are a lot of analytics and research you can do to inform that decision-making. Several years ago, for example, we took a very deep dive into research about our audience, to learn things like which celebrities we should use, and in what kind of format.

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