It’s almost hard to believe, but the BET Awards are only 20 years old, a milestone that the ceremony will reach with this weekend’s ceremony. A celebration of Black music and culture, the BET Awards has become a steady ratings draw (No. 1 in cable for the night), a prestigious honor for entertainers, and a space where major stars can shine alongside acts beloved to Black audiences who might be lesser known in the mainstream. Unlike the Grammys or Emmys, the BET Awards is one of few ceremonies for achievement where Black entertainers, athletes, actors, and cultural influencers need not worry they’d be overlooked because of the makeup of the voting body; at the BET Awards, people within the culture decide who is most fit to receive one. (And yes, Karen, white people do get and win them; as WaterCoolerConvos points out, more white people got nominated for BET Awards in 2015 than Black people go nominated for Oscars.)
Over the years, viewers have seen epic moments including an on-stage meeting between Michael Jackson and James Brown, as well as several mind-blowing performances from Beyoncé. This year’s ceremony, however, takes on special significance: produced remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and occurring amid the largest civil rights movement in history following protests over George Floyd’s murder, the 2020 BET Awards take on several layers of resonance its organizers have kept top of mind since Day 1.
“There was not ever a time when I thought about not doing [the show],” Connie Orlando, an executive vice president at BET who heads up specials, music programming and music strategy at the network, told TV Guide. (BET, like TV Guide, is part of ViacomCBS.) “I just knew we would do the show. This is the most important BET Awards ever.” Music, she said, has always been integral in Black activism, and with the Black Lives Matter movement at record levels of approval from Americans across social and party lines, a long tradition of marrying entertainment and activism was the North Star for creating this year’s program.
The prerecorded show, hosted by Insecure star Amanda Seales, will feature performances by Alicia Keys, Chloe x Halle, DaBaby, Jennifer Hudson, Megan Thee Stallion, and more — filmed all, of course, in separate locations under extreme caution. Orlando said that under the advisement of a ViacomCBS COVID-19 task force, as well as federal, state, and local regulations and union guidelines, performers recorded themselves in a variety of setups. There’s at least one mini-movie, a stage performance, a performance in an outdoor space, and material shot from performers’ home. “But, not just on their couch. They went all out. It’s a beautiful show, and I think you’ll be surprised at the epic-ness of what they put together.” She said Black Lives Matter was inherently baked into the program, whether through artists’ work or their messages, but declined to say if viewers would see BLM-themed material in the show, only hinting, “We have a few tricks up our sleeve.”
This year’s program marks another big moment for the BET Awards: for the first time, the ceremony will air on a major broadcast network, CBS, as it airs on BET. As Billboard points out, this type of synergy is overdue; the Country Music Assn. Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards have aired on legacy networks continuously for decades. Orlando said she was glad about the partnership and potential for more people to see the show. “I hope people walk away entertained, and see that the BET Awards is a spectacular show for people who love music, culture, surprises and fun.”
“Surprise” came up in the conversation a lot, and it presented a chance to ask the question that might be on many minds. Will Queen Bey, the most-nominated BET Awards performer and an outspoken champion of Black culture, be making another unforgettable appearance? Orlando, who helped bring Beyoncé’s vision of an on-stage pool of water to life for Beyoncé’s unannounced rendition of “Freedom” with Kendrick Lamar in 2016, was curiously mum.
“Oh, she’s amazing,” Orlando said. “She’s BET family. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
See all this year’s nominees and announced performers here.
The 2020 BET Awards will air Sunday, June 28 at 8/7c on BET, BET Her, and CBS.