NEW YORK - While BET is seen in more than 80 million homes, it's not everywhere. So when Reginald Hudlin recently found himself in New Hampshire - a state where the population is less than 1 percent black - he realized he needed to be creative to convince operators of a cable system to add the network to its lineup.
Hudlin, BET's entertainment president, pulled out a tape of Donnie Wahlberg talking about how important Black Entertainment Television was to him while growing up in nearby Boston.
Changing perceptions is a big part of Hudlin's job, particularly among the viewers who consider BET "our channel."
BET is a phenomenally successful business - it made founder Robert Johnson the nation's first black billionaire when he sold it to Viacom in 2000 - but it has rarely been known for innovative programming. Cheap music videos and reruns filled many of its hours.
In more than a year on the job, Hudlin has tried to make BET a presence in Hollywood. He's been rewarded with rising ratings, particularly for series that exposed the tough lives of music stars Lil' Kim and Keyshia Cole.
"BET, until Reggie's tenure, has never had a public face in terms of entertainment," said writer Nelson George, who's producing a short-run documentary series that premieres on BET next month. "Their face has always been Bob Johnson making money. The number of people who want to do stuff with BET is very large."
Hudlin, 44, exuded energy and Hollywood cool as he finished a cell-phone call before an interview in a Manhattan restaurant. He broke into the business producing the "House Party" movies and his credits include directing the "Everybody Hates Chris" pilot. He finds enough spare time to write the "Black Panther" comic book series.
Hudlin has set up an animation division at BET and has a handful of scripted shows in development, along with churning out the short-run reality series that are a staple of corporate cousins MTV and VH1.
"The black audience wants to be respected," he told The Associated Press. "They want quality programs that respect their intelligence. It better be hip, it better be innovative and be as fresh as possible."
Lil' Kim's "Countdown to Lockdown" became the network's highest-rated series as cameras followed the rap star in her final days before going to prison. Cole's series showed a successful artist confronting a troubled past when she went to a prison to talk to her mother about the woman's crack addiction.
This month brings new reality series following football star Vince Young as he launches his pro career, and basketball player Doug Christie and his control-freak wife.
BET also runs periodic "Top 25" specials, like last month's countdown of the most powerful blacks in society, also taking a cue from compulsively viewable "lists" on VH1.
Next month's "American Gangster" series from George is the kind of meaty programming that BET is uniquely positioned to do. Without glorifying them, it profiles notorious criminals like Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes and explores the impact of their enterprises on public policy and the black community.
"I'm having fun," Hudlin said. "I really love my job. I only do projects that excite me. Fortunately, I have a pretty broad palette, so a lot of projects excite me."
He recognizes BET's unique position in the black community. When BET decided earlier this year to abandon "Uncut," the R-rated, late-night compendium of steamy music videos, it meant more than TV executives simply canceling a show. It was seen as BET rejecting a degrading lifestyle that it was once criticized for glamorizing.
Hudlin hears both sides: he regularly gets petitions calling on BET to reinstate "Uncut."
"We're not getting rid of a problem," he said. "We're just offending a different group."
For the past few years, BET has also had to answer to critics for its lack of a regular news program. But Hudlin said BET's audience was more interested in catching up on issues in a different form, like its documentary on the "down-low" phenomenon of married men secretively chasing homosexual relationships. He's also proud of the Sunday-morning "Keep the Faith" program, exploring issues from the perspectives of black church leaders.
Donald Bogle, author of "Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood," told the Boston Globe this spring that BET is still "culturally, a sleeping giant more concerned about making a quick buck than providing programs black viewers can't find anywhere else."
BET under Hudlin is making a concerted effort to make new programming but is also doing it with a clear understanding that it is targeting young viewers, said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor and author of "Soul Babies: Black Pop Culture in the Post-Soul Aesthetic."
"Most of the criticisms of BET are really coming from folks who are over the age of 35 who, out of a black network, they really want some serious news, they want some serious talk, they want entertainment that doesn't play down to them," Neal said. "But that's not BET's audience now. BET's audience is essentially teenagers. So what Mr. Hudlin has had to do is find some programming that is innovative and interesting, but also speaks to the attention span of its audience."
BET filled a different need two decades ago, when there was a pride of ownership in the black community and fewer programs elsewhere on TV that addressed its interests, he said. BET was founded in 1979.
"My generation of BET watchers," said Neal, who's 40, "would be much more likely to watch VH1 at this time - `Flavor of Love' or shows about losing weight."
George said BET can become as big a brand as MTV. But it has to do it with original programming and must avoid one legacy of the Johnson years, he said.
"BET has always been a successful network, it's always made a lot of money," George said. "But for it to grow and for it to become a network that really transcends entertainment, there really has to be an infusion of cash. You can't do a network on the cheap."