Outlook 2021: Tiffany Lea Williams on bringing “buzzworthy” reality to BET

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
January 27, 2021

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on 2020, and looking onward to this year. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this latest edition, we speak to Tiffany Lea Williams, EVP of unscripted programming at ViacomCBS-owned BET.

You took up your role in the summer, but as much as you can, tell me a little bit about how 2020 was for BET, with specific focus on the unscripted side.

Tiffany Lea Williams: In 2020 there were some amazing unscripted wins. That would include our 10th season of our gospel competition series, Sunday Best, and also our music docuseries Chronicles.

And then we had our Content for Change initiative that launched in 2020, which was dedicated to a diverse slate of programming that addresses systematic racism, violence faced by Black people in America and, most importantly, the solutions — how to help move the country forward.

On February 20… we announced our Reclaim Your Vote, which was a nonpartisan social change campaign that was in partnership with the National Urban League and a couple other key national organizations. That initiative was committed to harnessing the Black collective power and increasing Black participation in the 2020 census and the 2020 election.

Another big highlight for us in 2020 was us taking a lead role in advocating for social justice during the height of COVID, as well as after the killing of George Floyd. For example, in April we aired Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort. That effort raised [funds] to support over 50 organizations and provide emergency resources directly to African Americans that were hardest hit by the crisis.

Did your approach to how you commission or develop unscripted content change or evolve in 2020? 

TLW: Everything has had to change in how we develop unscripted content.

The first thing is that, when I think about what I’m buying for the channel, there’s just certain shows that won’t work right now. We may love the concept, it may be awesome, but we just can’t make it during COVID. An example was, a travel show came in, and the entire team was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so awesome,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah it’s awesome but, let’s be honest, we’re not going to be able to make that show right now. We can’t travel around the world right now. We can’t be international.’

It’s just looking at the type of concepts that I can make. I’ve focused in on projects that can be in more contained environments, like a house reality format where everybody’s in a bubble, no one’s leaving for those four weeks or six weeks when you’re shooting the show.

Then, on the other side of that, everything that’s happened in 2020 has just made me look at buying things that really speak to our audience’s immediate needs for racial equality and justice as we’ve seen what’s been happening throughout the country and actually throughout the world. We were always doing that concept but now it feels like there’s even more immediacy for that.

What are some of the biggest ways the past year has affected how you work, for better or worse? Did you adopt any ways of doing business that will outlast the pandemic?

TLW: I think that remote working is probably going to stay, but it may be more of a hybrid scenario where it’s part in the office, part out of the office. We’ve all learned that we all can work from home. So, I think that will probably outlast the pandemic.

I think to a certain extent, elements of remote shooting may outlast the pandemic, or remote production… It’ll all be scaled back in some ways, as we’ve all learned that we can do things differently. I think the size of teams will change. We’ve realized that to get a lot of these shows up and going, one of the protocols is smaller teams, smaller crews… I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to these really ballooned crews that go out in the field.

How are you working with your producing partners to keep productions safe? Are you still able to keep productions going right now?

TLW: For us, safety is key and it’s paramount. ViacomCBS — its COVID Council is just a class act in terms of making everyone feel safe but also just knowing the proper protocols to put in place.

Social distancing, masks on an all time, on-site testing, smaller production crews — we’re doing all of that with our partners and they’re all working so well with us… COVID is ever-evolving, it’s not something that is in this contained environment.

Not only that, [regulations] change depending on what state you’re going to. So, what may hold true in New York may not hold true in Georgia, may not hold true in LA or Texas, so we’re always having to be in that constant dialogue together.

Prior to BET you were SVP of unscripted programming and development at MTV. How is your experience in unscripted at MTV shaping/influencing how you approach content at BET?

TLW: I started doing house reality shows at BET with College Hill. At MTV, I did a lot of house reality, social experiment, competition formats like Are You the One? and The Challenge.

Those are the concepts I think are so fun to watch and so buzzworthy, so you can probably expect to see some of those types of shows, large scale formats, on BET. And then, something else I look to develop are these larger than life concepts with emerging celebrity talent that already have built-in fan bases.

Another thing I’ve brought over from MTV — but, really, it’s just been the way I’ve operated honestly since I was even working in production — is, D&I is so important to me on productions both in front of and behind the camera.

Along those lines, it’s even more important at BET because Black media institutions have historically given some of the biggest stars and creatives and even production crew their first big break. So, I look to build upon that legacy with a pipeline that offers creatives a platform to tell those stories, to work behind the scenes on those shows.

Generally, what do you foresee as being some of the key challenges, from your perspective, as we look ahead to this year? 

TLW: I don’t want to state the obvious, but I’m going to state the obvious. One of the challenges, generally, is keeping cast and crew safe. That’s paramount right now.

This is probably not as fun to say, but show staying on deadline and making sure shows deliver… because you don’t know from day-to-day what’s actually going on with the COVID cases in the towns that you’re in.

Another challenge that I see down the road that could manifests is, budgets obviously have to increase because of safety protocols. Depending on what that cost looks like, does that mean that certain networks have to cut back on the amount of shows they make to make room for the extra cost and budget? Another thing is maintaining creative excellence for the audience. It’s a huge challenge. The last five years or decade of reality TV, the bar has been set so high in terms of what the audience expects, from production quality and level of storytelling and talent. They want their shows at the best quality, and one of the challenges that I see for this year is keeping that same bar and that same level of quality for the audience that they’ve come to expect, even though it’s a COVID world and there’s all the production challenges.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.