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BET’s Connie Orlando on Producing Award Shows: ‘Not Only Do We Get to Celebrate Culture, We Also Get to Create It’

According to BET’s Connie Orlando, EVP, specials, music programming & music strategy, the secret to putting on a good show is creating the kind of “moments that people start talking about during the show and continue throughout the week.” 

While many awards shows were challenged by the restraints of COVID-19, the 2020 BET Awards on June 28 drew 3.7 million viewers and redefined the blueprint of what a pandemic awards show could be. From Megan Thee Stallion’s medley set in a dystopian desert to former first lady Michelle Obama presenting Beyoncé with the BET humanitarian award, the show was studded with moments that won rave reviews from both fans and critics.  

In 2021, BET produces the top four cable awards shows for Black viewers, according to the network. The BET Awards takes the top spot, followed by the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and the Stellar Awards, which honors gospel music. (BET also produces the Soul Train Awards, which will air this year on Nov. 28). As an executive producer on all five of BET’s shows, Orlando is “in charge of BET’s viewpoint on the creative side, along with the what, the where, and the how,” she shares.  

As preparations for the 2021 Soul Train Awards are underway, Orlando sat down with Billboard to reveal the creative process behind these powerhouse projects. Below, the producer took us through making moments on stage and celebrating Black excellence for the world to see.  

Does each award show you produce on BET have its own vibe? 

When you do that many award shows, the idea is to always give them their own personality. It’s by design. If you look at the BET Awards — “culture’s biggest night” — it’s big. It’s Black excellence. It’s the best of the best. We wanna thunder home a message about music, culture, and everything.  

I like to call Soul Train our grown-and-sexy event. Soul Train highlights the best in soul music. Eighty percent of the time, the audience is singing, because the songs are so interwoven into our experience that we grew up with. It’s just a feel-good show. You come out, have a good time. 

With the Hip Hop Awards, I like to remember the three N’s: What is Now? What is Next? And a little bit of Nostalgia when it comes to some of our honors, like the I am hip hop award. That show has its finger on the pulse of what is happening right now in hip hop.  

The Image awards is another show that celebrates Black excellence — but in acting, theater, and literature, and more.  

It all culminates with a wonderful portfolio of events where we celebrate culture on so many levels. I look forward to doing these shows every year, and making them different and stand out. 

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris opened this year’s NAACP Image Awards. Were they hard to book for the show? 

They weren’t. Everyone knows about the Image Awards — it’s a big show, and it’s an important show from its beginning roots to now. People line up to be on that show. We were very lucky: They really wanted to do it, and we really wanted them to do it. So it was great to have them there. 

Did the White House reach out to you first about appearing on the show? 

[Laughs.] I think we probably reached out to them first. 

With five shows, how do you make sure each show feels different? How does your creative process differ from show to show? 

It’s an organic creative process for all five. We go in, look at the previous year, and think about how we can make it bigger, better, and faster. You ask yourself: What is the show and its message? Or what is its personality? Then you start ideating around that. 

The Image Awards are so classic. Very black tie. Hip Hop is about showing innovation and what’s next… BET Awards is really about the moments. We like to create moments that people start talking about during the show and continue throughout the week. You don’t wanna go get popcorn or answer your phone, because you might miss something that’ll be the next biggest thing. I always say that with all our shows, not only do we get to celebrate culture, but we also get to create it. It’s the moments that’ll be talked about forever for our culture. That’s fun and exciting. 

The process is the same for all of them, but we fine-tune it to the personality and what we want that show to deliver as we go into it. 

How important is it to respond to current events on the shows? 

It’s an important part of all the shows to really talk about the moment we’re in. We don’t ever wanna be tone deaf. We always wanna use our platforms to speak to change. Speak to what’s going on. We do that very well with all our shows. 

Do you work with an all-Black team?   

I would say 99%.  

That’s quite a rare thing for major media companies. What does that mean to you? 

It’s definitely not a common thing with other media companies. Even before working at BET, I actually worked with the best team that happened to be all Black. BET has always been there for the opportunity, and it’s our responsibility to work with people that look like us. At its inherent core, you wanna walk into the room at BET with everyone having a common thread, a common heart. My team is the best out there, and that shows. 

In 2020, many awards shows were challenged by the prospects of a virtual show, but the 2020 BET Awards became one of the most talked-about awards shows of the year. Can you describe how that show came together?  

That show was challenging because we were all in this new world. We did the Saving Ourselves [COVID-19 benefit concert] in April, and it was virtual. We had to make a decision on the BET Awards since none of us thought we’d still be in a pandemic. Once we made the decision to do the show in late April, early May, we had to sit down and throw everything we knew out the window. It was a great thing in retrospect. We asked ourselves: One, how do we do produce this mega show from our living rooms? And two, what do people want? You always wanna cater to your audience.  

And then, we were in this moment around George Floyd, which also led to how we ideated on what would be on the show, the mood of the show, what messages were important. While the process was challenging, it was amazing. As creative people, the opportunities to stretch yourself and think outside the box are great when they come. We got thrown into the deep end, but we figured it out. We’re so proud of that show. People woke up the next morning, and were like, ‘Wow, that was a really great show.’ There were lots of emotions about it in a time when the world was in chaos. 

How do you come up with the concepts behind artists’ performance? 

It’s very collaborative. We have some artists who know exactly what they want, and we have artists who [we] ideate with and offer suggestions. It’s a lot of creative meetings where you sit down and talk through what the performance is gonna be. What do they want from it? What will resonate on TV? We come together and strike gold because it’s something everybody believes in. And again, it’s about moments. How do we make it a moment? 

Following the positive responses to the 2020 BET Awards, did you notice other awards shows following your lead? 

We did. Everyone was looking [at] how to do it. I think we set up the blueprint or foundation. When they were figuring out their shows, they thought, ‘Okay, we know a show can happen this way.’ With every show that comes and goes, you learn a bit. You keep picking up, learning, and evolving — just like how we got to this year’s show. It was still in a COVID environment, but we were able to do so much because we learned so much. 

The 2021 Soul Train Awards will be taped on Nov. 20, and the show is slated to air on Nov. 28. What kind of special surprises are in store for the brand’s 50th anniversary? 

The biggest surprise, which isn’t a surprise anymore, is that it will be at the Apollo Theater. We are over-the-moon to partner up with them on the show. It’s the 50th anniversary of Soul Train. [The Soul Train Awards] has never been at The Apollo. It was great to bring the two huge brands together in celebration. 

In the show itself, we’re honoring some really great people, like Maxwell. He’s amazing. We’re excited to give Ashanti the lady of soul award. We’re still working with our hosts Tisha [Campbell] and Tichina [Arnold]. It’s their fourth year. Their energy is infections. Love them. We’ll see what their antics are for the show, but it’s gonna be a great show. 

I’m excited about H.E.R., who is leading the way with eight nominations. 

She’s so amazing. I remember she was on the BET Awards when she was 9 or 11. One of her first performances was on BET, so to see her in all her excellence is amazing. I love H.E.R. 

How are you paying tribute to the Soul Train legacy? 

It’ll be a moment to really talk about it, and let the world know that it’s not just a TV show that’s been on for 50 years. It’s everything that went into Soul Train. At its heart, Soul Train is a music show. It was about soul. It was one of the first platforms to ever showcase African American music and culture. For a while, it was even the longest-running show.  

But it’s also about this idea of the American Dream, right? Not only did [creator/host of Soul Train] Don Cornelius knock down doors, but he also made pathways where there was nothing. Out of nothing. It’s that passion and that drive that is really the heartbeat of what Soul Train is, so we celebrate that more than anything. There’ll be some special moments dedicated to the Soul Train journey.

What does it personally mean to you to produce five shows celebrating Black excellence on a major platform? 

I’m so proud and passionate about what I do in my job. I love when I get to do shows that celebrate people and culture. In most cases, we do things on the show to shine a light on people you maybe wouldn’t even know have done amazing things. That’s what it’s all about at BET as a network. It feels good to be a steward of the BET brand because we’re always true to our responsibility. We’re always true to that passion and that heartbeat. We’re always true to celebration and shining a light on folks that deserve it. 

Can you share some examples of tributes that you think only BET could pull off? 

I’m not downing everyone else that tributed this person, but our Prince tribute [at the BET Awards in June 2016, two months after he died] was one of the most amazing tributes we’ve ever done at our show. It felt like we were family doing it. We had five different performances during the show. That’s that layer we bring to it, because we’ve grown up with it. We know the music intimately. We know the culture intimately. I wish we could do more shows that just honor folks because a lot of people don’t get their flowers. 

Can you recall any memorable responses from fans who’ve watched your shows? 

One of the most breathtaking performances was when Beyoncé and Kendrick [Lamar] opened the [2016 BET Awards] show with a pool of water. People hadn’t seen that ever inside. And when we gave Mary J. Blige the living legend award [in 2019], that performance just knocked people off their feet. They were so happy. Happy because it was an incredible celebration, and happy because we were honoring her. It was so well-deserved. 

What are your thoughts on being a woman of color in an executive role calling the shots at a major media company?  

In my career, I’ve always said that the beautiful thing about it is that I get to walk in the room and be creative. I’ve worked for BET Networks for most of my career. I just get to show up and be me and bring my whole self. It’s not that I’m the Black woman in the room trying to teach people about what that means. We all just show up and do our jobs. And that’s what you see. That’s what translates on camera. We just show up and authentically care. That’s a beautiful thing. 

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